More than 10 years ago, Robert Gold sought to do what many Americans have dreamed of their whole lives: patent an idea.
Gold developed a breakthrough in wireless communications that would help people speak to one another with less interference and greater security.
Then it disappeared like a dropped call.
The Department of Defense concluded that his invention could be a national security threat in the wrong hands and slapped Gold’s patent application with a so-called “secrecy order” in 2002, which prevented him from discussing the technology with anyone. Five years later, his attorney succeeded in lifting the order, but by then, it was too late.
“The window of opportunity, I believed, had really passed during those years,” Gold said. “So we have not been successful at commercializing the idea.”
Gold stresses today that he didn’t oppose the government’s position – public knowledge about covert communications techniques could undermine the military. The federal government sponsored his research and retained the right to use the technology.
But it also promoted an incentive by granting Gold shared patent rights, meaning he could file an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and seek to commercialize the idea. Accomplishing that, however, required petitioning to have the secrecy order lifted as the years passed with his invention living in the shadows.
It’s a common refrain in the stump speeches of politicians that America is a nation of ideas, but Congress decided in 1951 that some of those ideas must nonetheless be kept hidden. Today, as Silicon Valley and other innovation centers churn out thousands of patents a year, some lawmakers wonder whether the government should have broader powers.
What is known about secrecy orders is largely the result of Freedom of Information Act requests filed by groups like the Federation of American Scientists, an independent, nonpartisan think tank. Those documents show that the overall number of secrecy orders has steadily increased in recent years, totaling more than 5,300 by 2012, with some of them in effect for decades.
Tens of thousands of patent applications are manually examined each year under the Invention Secrecy Act and referred for a final decision to the Pentagon, National Security Agency, Department of Justice and, more recently, Department of Homeland Security.
“From the patent owner’s perspective, you’re stuck in this legal limbo where the government says you’ve got this valid invention, but there’s nothing you can do with it until maybe decades later,” said Mark Lemley, a technology law professor at Stanford University.
Secrecy orders are rare, but violating one can result in prison time.
A California man named James Constant filed his patent application in 1969 for radar technology that could track shipping containers, packages or components traveling along an assembly line. After his secrecy order was eventually lifted in 1971, Constant sought damages from the government, arguing that he couldn’t capitalize on the idea. When it reached trial years later in 1982, the court ruled against him, concluding that a “lack of business experience” impeded his chance of success.
Constant said from his home in Claremont that the secrecy order caused him to incur “a substantial financial loss” and set him back for years.
“When the secrecy order was put on my patent, I had the only viable technology,” he said.
In each case, the legal headaches occurred only after the inventor had spent no small amount of time and resources developing the idea in the first place.
“We still have a Cold War approach to secrecy orders,” said Pat Choate, an economist and intellectual property expert. “If a secrecy order is imposed, you wind up with the inventor effectively having the technology taken away.”
Lemley and others understand why defense officials might want to shield cryptographic technology that could prevent the government from secretly eavesdropping on the conversations for foreign enemies. But modern encryption can also protect consumers from identity thieves and allow human rights activists living under abusive regimes to communicate more freely.
“Who’s going to make the determination that something is economically viable? It’s usually the market making that determination,” said Robert Stoll, who retired as the nation’s patent commissioner in 2011 before joining a private practice.
Stoll said such a move would do its own damage to the economy, and the nation would be better off filing patent applications in foreign countries and taking China or other violators before the World Trade Organization if they fail to honor intellectual property agreements now in place.
Tom Culligan, legislative director for Wolf, countered that achieving recourse from the World Trade Organization can take far too long. The congressman’s goal was, first, to review secrecy orders in general after years of inattention from Congress and, second, to force the federal government to examine how strong present protections are for America’s most important ideas, Culligan said.
“We just wanted to start a conversation. We weren’t necessarily prescribing a solution,” he said.
Under the law, an inventor can seek compensation if defense agencies choose to use the idea or if the applicant can prove damages were suffered by not being permitted to take it to the marketplace. But the process for doing so is arduous, economist Choate said. Among other things, evidence confirming the government simply took an inventor’s idea could itself be considered secret.
Steven Hoffberg has handled one secrecy order in his 23 years as an intellectual property attorney. But that order was enough to threaten his client’s idea for a technology that could detect objects, including, potentially, stealth aircraft.
Hoffberg’s client, James Greer of Alabama, lived under a secrecy order for eight years after his application was filed in 2000. During that time, it would have been a challenge to explore whether the idea could be exported to strategic allies of the United States as an anti-stealth technology, let alone identify possibilities outside of the defense community. Those possibilities included object tracking for “smarter” highways of the future and next-generation communications.
Hoffberg argues that it was unjustified for the order to be in place for such a long period of time and that at least by 2004, the application would not have given adversaries a strategic advantage.
“They kept us from fulfilling the purpose of the patent, which was to make an investment to bring a product to market,” Hoffberg said. “ … If the government wasn’t going to buy the product from us and wasn’t going to let us sell it commercially, we basically had no value.”
Choate and others want the government to stop publishing applications until a formal patent is issued, and if the application is denied, they want it destroyed so the inventor has a chance to try again or guard it as a trade secret and ultimately reap the rewards before it’s stolen.
When it comes to secrecy orders, many of the technologies were backed by defense agencies to begin with. So it’s less of a surprise if such an order exists for the technical components of a nuclear weapons system, for example.
But dozens of so-called “John Doe” secrecy orders are issued each year, affecting private individuals and businesses that might never enjoy a payoff from their invention, even though the government has no explicit interest in the technology. John Doe orders reached a high of almost 100 in 1998, though the annual number has declined in the new millennium, according to the Federation of American Scientists.
So is the next Google hiding behind a secrecy order? It seems highly unlikely, but because of the shroud of secrecy, no one can know for sure, said science historian Alex Wellerstein.
He said even one hidden technology carrying possible benefits for society that are not defense-related is enough to undermine the purpose of patents – encouraging invention. He and other experts want at least the criteria used for issuing secrecy orders made public.
“The law says it just has to be detrimental to national security, which is vague,” Wellerstein said. “That doesn’t mean anything. It’d be nice if you had to actually pass (the patent application) to people who have business experience, not just people who make weapons and have a tendency of seeing lots of things as dangerous.”
This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.