¿Se conceden demasiadas patentes?


Una de las circunstancias que animan la explicación y el estudio del Derecho mercantil es la conexión entre la realidad y lo que se explica en las aulas universitarias. El reciente litigio que ha enfrentado en un Tribunal californiano a dos colosos de la informática y nuevas tecnologías como son Apple y Samsung (resuelto a favor de la primera con una condena de 800 millones de euros, objeto de apelación), ha llevado a  debatir el sistema vigente de patentes. Probablemente porque este tipo de litigios ni empiezan ni acaban ante los Tribunales, sino que despiertan también una auténtica batalla de opinión.

Es un asunto importante por implicar a empresas de dimensión global, por discutirse la titularidad de patentes que afectan a productos de uso cotidiano por todos nosotros y por la trascendencia que el debate tiene en términos cuantitativos y estrictamente jurídicos. Esto último lo digo por el reguero de opiniones que ha dejado el enfrentamiento entre Apple y Samsung en torno a la finalidad de las patentes y a si se está produciendo una utilización excesiva del derecho de patente. Discusión que plantea, entre otros debates, si el sistema legal estaba preparado para su aplicación en sectores tendentes a registrar una infinidad de invenciones patentables.
En definitiva, lo que se discute es en qué medida en relación con determinadas patentes que se debatían en el pleito en cuestión, se dan esos requisitos generales de patentabilidad que, en el caso del ordenamiento español, aparecen plasmados en el art. 4.1 de la Ley 11/1986, de 20 de marzo, de Patentes:
“Artículo 4. Concepto de patente; inclusiones y exclusiones
1. Son patentables las invenciones nuevas, que impliquen actividad inventiva y sean susceptibles de aplicación industrial, aun cuando tengan por objeto un producto que esté compuesto o que contenga materia biológica, o un procedimiento mediante el cual se produzca, transforme o utilice materia biológica”.
El reflejo informativo de esta batalla es inmenso, pero llamaré la  atención sobre dos reportajes recientísimos que me han parecido ilustrativos de la situación en la que se encuentra el debate. El primero es el que ofrecía el Suplemento Mercados del Diario El Mundo del pasado domingo 2 de septiembre de 2012 titulado “Guerra de Patentes” y que se preguntaba, entre otras cuestiones, la de si “¿Se puede patentar todo?”. No menos interesante y amplia es la cobertura que el 2 de septiembre daba El País a esta cuestión, al titular “Tanto patentas, tanto vales”. 
Al final lo que se está cuestionando es la colisión entre dos intereses contrapuestos. Por un lado, la protección que merece todo inventor. Por otro, en qué medida un recurso excesivo a ese sistema de tutela por quienes son capaces de estar innovando de manera constante no puede acabar implicando un freno al desarrollo tecnológico. En relación con este último argumento, remito a la lectura de la columna que Richard A. Posner publicadaen The Atlantic bajo el título: “Why There Are Too Many Patents in America”. Parte de principios de aquel ordenamiento afines al nuestro:
“U.S. patent law confers a monopoly (in the sense of a right to exclude competitors), generally for 20 years, on an invention that is patented, provided the patent is valid — that is, that it is genuinely novel, useful, and not obvious. Patents are granted by the Patent and Trademark Office and are presumed valid. But their validity can be challenged in court, normally by way of defense by a company sued by a patentee for patent infringement.”
Destaca que el sistema de concesión de patentes no diferencia en atención a sectores de actividad: 
“With some exceptions, U.S. patent law does not discriminate among types of inventions or particular industries. This is, or should be, the most controversial feature of that law. The reason is that the need for patent protection in order to provide incentives for innovation varies greatly across industries”.
Esa falta de diferenciación hace que los principios legales que sirven para defender la innovación en empresas para las que resulta especialmente costosa (caso de las farmacéuticas), beneficien a otras para las que la invención no acarrea similar esfuerzo:
But few industries resemble pharmaceuticals in the respects that I’ve just described. In most, the cost of invention is low; or just being first confers a durable competitive advantage because consumers associate the inventing company’s brand name with the product itself; or just being first gives the first company in the market a head start in reducing its costs as it becomes more experienced at producing and marketing the product; or the product will be superseded soon anyway, so there’s no point to a patent monopoly that will last 20 years; or some or all of these factors are present. Most industries could get along fine without patent protection.
I would lay particular stress on the cost of invention. In an industry in which teams of engineers are employed on a salaried basis to conduct research on and development of product improvements, the cost of a specific improvement may be small, and when that is true it is difficult to make a case for granting a patent. The improvement will be made anyway, without patent protection, as part of the normal competitive process in markets where patents are unimportant. It is true that the easier it is to get a patent, the sooner inventions will be made. But “patent races” (races, induced by hope of obtaining a patent, to be the first with a product improvement) can result in excessive resources being devoted to inventive activity. A patent race is winner take all. The firm that makes an invention and files for a patent one day before his competitors reaps the entire profit from the invention, though the benefit to consumers of obtaining the product a day earlier may be far less than the cost of the accelerated invention process”.
Y ofrece algunas soluciones frente al sistema en vigor:
“There are a variety of measures that could be taken to alleviate the problems I’ve described. They include: reducing the patent term for inventors in industries that do not have the peculiar characteristics of pharmaceuticals that I described; instituting a system of compulsory licensing of patented inventions; eliminating court trials including jury trials in patent cases by expanding the authority and procedures of the Patent and Trademark Office to make it the trier of patent cases, subject to limited appellate review in the courts; forbidding patent trolling by requiring the patentee to produce the patented invention within a specified period, or lose the patent; and (what is beginning) provide special training for federal judges who volunteer to preside over patent litigation”.
Entre otras opiniones en respuesta a la posición de Posner y alineándose con la normativa en vigor y la tutela que conlleva para el titular de la patente, he encontrado en el blog de la Chicago Law School Faculty la columna del Profesor Randal C. Picker: “Apple v. Samsung: What Are Patents Good For?”, que sintetiza las tres críticas más reiteradas hacia la situación actual:
The charge is more basic: we have too many patents, as my colleague (and former boss) Judge Richard Posner argued recently in The Atlantic. (And for a response, see another of my colleagues, Richard Epstein, in Newsweek.) There are perhaps three popular flavors of the too-many-patents claim. The first is about patent thickets and frustrated innovation. Many small patents are granted and an actual innovative product in the area needs access to all of those patents. One holdout means no product or, in the alternative, a firm builds a product knowing that it faces the risk that a claim will emerge later for a good chunk of the profits. The great danger of these claims of course is that no one ever shows up to try to share the costs of failed products. The patents are revealed only after the fact when the product has proven itself in the marketplace and a large pot of money has been created. Whatever we think of the patent thicket idea generally, it doesn’t seem to have much bite in Apple v. Samsung.
The second version of too-many-patents is a claim about innovation and incremental incentives. Patents are supposed to induce R&D and we reward that extra investment with a property right. But if the relevant innovation would be found anyhow through the normal activities of the firm, the patent lure isn’t inducing anything and we then are handing out property rights with all of the corresponding market power harms for nothing.
The third version of too-many-patents idea is about how innovation is rewarded and is another version of the incremental incentives claim. Apple has become the most valuable company on the planet through its innovations. We might think that carrot enough even without the further benefits of patent protection for its underlying innovations. Try this: if we had said to Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive, “your new designs will create the most valuable firm on the planet but we won’t give you property rights in them, so other firms will be able to piggyback on those ideas rapidly, will you still move forward?” I assume that we think that the answer to that is yes”.

Aparece otro material para el debate. El diferente perfil de las empresas implicadas con respecto a la actividad inventiva. Continúo con la cita de Picker:
“In contrast, Apple is the hardcore vertically integrated firm, inventing, producing and enforcing its IP rights against another very successful producing firm. We can undertake to revamp the patent system, and that could be within-patent reforms about the balance of utility patents and design patents or larger scale reforms that focus on the incremental incentives question, but given the system we have today, it isn’t at all surprising that an innovative firm like Apple holds patents that, by design, make it possible for Apple to block sales by competitors to eager customers. That is, after all, the point of the patent system in the first place”.
Un contraste referido a la otra parte del litigio lo ofrecía la columna “Samsung se lame las heridas”, incluida en el suplemento Negocios de El País de ayer.
 
Madrid, 10 de septiembre de 2012