Friday, March 10, 2006

Derek's Presentation: Inventing things smaller than dust

For my presentation, I will cover the current state of nanotechnology patents. First, I will show how nanotechnology represents a distinct break from preceding material sciences. Once nano-tech is properly regarded as a new field, I will make several arguments about how the patenting of nanotechnology should proceed. Second, I will observe how academic institutions as patent-holders present market problems for the optimal use of the science.

“Nanotechnology” covers items on the scale of 1-100 nm. A nanometer (nm) is one one-billionth of a meter. A human hair, for example, is about 80,000 nm across (National Nanotechnology Initiative). One hydrogen atom, the smallest atom, is roughly 0.1 nm wide. When materials exist on such small scales, their physical properties are different than when measured in a macroscopic sense. For instance, in the ammonia molecule (NH3), the nitrogen atom tunnels quantum-mechanically between the plane of the three hydrogen atoms. That means it basically disappears in the physical sense on one side of the hydrogens and reappears on the other side. This phenomenon is well-studied and the measurement of the oscillatory frequency provides the basis for measuring time on “atomic clocks.”

Given the nature of the science, nanotech patents are relatively new. However, the process that the USPTO uses to evaluate them might be problematic. As it currently exists, nanotech patents are examined by classical-science technology groups (bio, material sciences, chemical) with secondary consideration given to the nano-nature of the invention (but this approach is only as the 2005 creation of a subclass for nano patents). I would like to examine the standards as they exist and determine if they are sufficient to evaluate nanotechnology. For the reasons given, I anticipate that special focus should be given to the nano-nature of the inventions and this should be a consideration that trumps the classification into the traditional technology centers. I shall present a modified form of requirements for patentability that seem fit to this area.

A thought that I would like explore is whether the state of the art is so new that patenting fundamental elements could block off subsequent innovation. For that matter, the foundational elements of many “enabling technologies” first developed in a climate without or under limited patents (computers, software, bio-tech pre-Chakrabarty, transistors). This begs the ultimate question – should nanotechnology be subject to patent law at the present time?

Another interesting aspect of nanotechnology is that many academic institutions are at the forefront of the science, and therefore hold a significant number of patents. However, universities don’t have the economic incentive to exploit the technology the way private-sector developers do, and so the invention may be underutilized. If true, I propose a system of compulsory licensure so that businesses may have easier access to exploit the technology, while at the same time letting some of the benefit flow to the true “inventor.” This is probably a paper in itself, but I think it is an interesting and important issue.


I would appreciate my classmates’ thoughts on the following:

Material manipulated on the nanometer scale is arguably an engineered product. However, should the “products of nature” doctrine be a limit on the patentability of these near-atomic structures?

What about patenting foundational science? Should the building blocks of a discipline be proprietary?

What do you think of my proposals for patentability and licensing?

3 Comments:

Blogger duffee said...

To post my question from class--I think you answered it very well in class:

Could currently-applied technologies be patented as nanotechnology even if the underlying science is unchanged? If this type of situation were to occur, would such a patent application be rejected as obvious or not novel?

1:45 PM  
Blogger Ashik Jahan said...

Nanotech may be a bit over my head, but I have a general question.

If a company has a patent on some nanotech, how would a new IP scheme specifically designed for nanotechnology impact those existing patents?

1:46 PM  
Blogger Aaron said...

This is a general question unrelated to your speech. What kind of background do you have? Is it more related to materials science or physics? Your speech was very informative into the nano-tech world.

3:48 PM  

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