Long live American ingenuity

Long live American ingenuity
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On Friday, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will open the “Gateway to Culture,” part of a new “Arts and Culture” wing that will be devoted to music, sports and entertainment.

It is the first of several new Smithsonian exhibits that will honor, in part, the contributions to American culture of the American audio pioneer Ray Dolby, who passed away five years ago.


Ray Dolby was that distinctively-American character — the independent inventor — who has always been such a prominent feature of our nation’s innovation ecosystem. The middle class son of a salesman and homemaker, Ray’s patented noise suppression technologies changed the way we all enjoy music and movies.

Like Thomas Edison before him, who invented the phonograph and movie camera, Ray Dolby revolutionized the entertainment industry and contributed enormously to people’s enjoyment of arts and culture the world over.

Also like Edison, once Ray started inventing — his name is on the world’s first video recorder patent (No. 2,956,114) in 1955 — he never stopped.

Decade after decade, as the Hollywood film industry transitioned from analog high-fidelity to stereo to digital, and as consumer electronics devices evolved from cassette players and VHS recorders to DVDs and now mobile phones, Ray and his team kept on inventing ever-more dazzling sight and sound experiences for people to enjoy in their movies and music.

Businesses very quickly learned that the Dolby brand was a potent draw for entertainment consumers, whether displayed on the marquee of a movie theater or on the front of a DVD player.

For his part, Ray always insisted that he owed much of his half-century of invention success to the encouragement and protections of the U.S. patent system. He understood that only with a patent system like ours could ordinary citizen-inventors like Ray Dolby and Thomas Edison, born without wealth or privilege, be so successful and prolific as inventors.

As Ray Dolby himself once put it, “I won’t go into any area that I can’t get a patent on.”

The Smithsonian’s new exhibit, then, is not just a tribute to arts and entertainment, or even to Ray Dolby. It is also a testament to the power of an American patent system that Abraham Lincoln praised for having “added the fuel of interest to the fires of genius.”

And if you really want to see what’s special about the American patent system, make a list of all the world’s greatest innovations over the last 150 years — and the enormous industries each of them spawned. Think of the telephone, telegraph and electric power industries and the auto and aircraft industries.

Don’t forget the invention of semiconductors, personal computers, software, biotech, the $4 trillion e-commerce industry, the smartphone, artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicle industries.

What do they all have in common? Every single one was launched by inventors and entrepreneurs who relied on the U.S. patent system.

So what is it about the U.S. patent system that enabled the birth of all these amazing new inventions and job-creating industries? Simply put, it was the world’s first democratized patent system. The Founding Fathers consciously designed it to be affordable and accessible to all — the first such system in the world capable of incentivizing large numbers of ordinary citizens to take part in innovation activity.

What’s more, by allowing for the sale and license of patents, the Founders also enabled the world’s first market for technology, which attracted venture investors to commercialize those innovations.

Remember, when America was founded, it lacked domestic industry and was wholly dependent on imports. But less than a century after the first patent law was passed in 1790, the U.S. had already become the leader of the Industrial Revolution, with four times the per capita patenting rate as Great Britain, even though our populations were then still roughly equal in size.

As historians Naomi Lamoreaux and the late Kenneth Sokoloff wrote:

“Observers attributed much of [America’s] rapid technological progress to its distinctive patent system. Quite revolutionary in design at inception, the U.S. patent system came to be much admired for providing broad access to property rights in new technological knowledge and for facilitating trade in patented technologies. These features attracted the technologically creative, even those who lacked the capital to directly exploit their inventions.”

The U.S. patent system helped our nation build the most successful economy in the history of the world. It is no coincidence that European nations, China and other Asian nations have implemented many features of our patent system into their own.

In recent years, however, our patent system — this driving engine of economic progress — has begun to sputter. Previously ranked No. 1 in the world, the U.S. patent system recently fell to 12th place, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s 6th Annual Global IP Index.

The problem, noted the Chamber, is that “patentability standards and patent opposition procedures continue to create uncertainty for rights holders.”

But there’s a new director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), Andrei Iancu. He has already set about strengthening patent rights for inventors, clarifying patent eligibility rules and reducing the number of unsupportable challenges to properly-issued patents.

Ray Dolby would have been deeply touched to know that the esteemed Smithsonian Museum is honoring his contributions in its “Gateway to Culture” exhibit.

He would have also been gratified to think that the exhibit’s visitors might take a moment to reflect on the value of a patent system that made his own innovations, and so much of our nation’s economic success, possible.

Andy Sherman is executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary at Dolby Laboratories.