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University of Missouri

Patently Obsessed

Law Professor Dennis Crouch wants more transparency in the U.S. patent system.

Dennis Crouch

MU Law Professor Dennis Crouch has twice testified to Congress about patent reform. Photo by Nicholas Benner.

Good luck to any company that wants to see if a new product will run afoul of any of the 4 million active U.S. patents.

“It’s hard to tell what’s been patented and if the patent is valid,” says Dennis Crouch, associate professor in MU’s School of Law. “You can’t know for sure.”

Some patents are overly broad, and applications are organized in a way that’s difficult to see what they cover, Crouch says. He estimates companies can be about 80 percent sure a new product won’t violate a patent — a recipe for expensive, unnecessary legal battles. This lack of transparency is the focus of Crouch’s research and outreach. In 2011 and 2013 he testified before Congressional subcommittees on the topic and for 10 years has written the patent blog PatentlyO.com, which has a readership of 30,000. His suggestions: require more information from applicants to make clearer what each patent would cover, reorganize applications to make them easier to search, make a public database of patent enforcement attempts so small businesses can see where litigious areas are and give competitors a chance to object to patent applications earlier in the process.