Professor Janet Freilich (Fordham Law) has a fantastic forthcoming law review article, Prophetic Patents, which puts a spotlight on the common practice of submitting patent applications containing entirely hypothetical experimental results. These "prophetic examples" are permitted as long as the predicted results are not in the past tense. Using this tense rule, Freilich analyzed over two million U.S. patents in chemistry and biology, and she estimates that 17% of examples in these patents are prophetic. Prophetic examples may be familiar to patent drafters, but scientists and engineers who learn about them generally describe them as bizarre, and even some patent scholars are unfamiliar with the practice. Prophetic Patents was the one article by a lawyer selected for the 2018 NBER Summer Institute on Innovation, and the economist-heavy audience was fascinated by the concept—many were not even aware that researchers can obtain a patent without actually implementing an invention, much less that patents can contain hypothetical data.
Freilich notes the potential benefits of allowing untested ideas to be patented in terms of encouraging earlier disclosure and helping firms acquire financing, though she finds that patents with prophetic examples are not broader (based on claim word count), filed earlier (based on AIA implementation), or more likely to be filed by small entities. I'm very sympathetic to the argument that the current legal standard may allow speculative ideas to be patented too early—I've argued in prior work that all the competing policy considerations raised by Pierson v. Post about the optimal timing of property rights suggest that many patents are currently awarded prematurely. This is a challenging empirical question, however, because we cannot observe the counterfactual innovation ecosystem operating under a different legal standard.
But while pondering the hard question of the timing of patentability, patent scholars should not lose sight of the easy question: even if patenting untested inventions is socially desirable, there is no reason these patents need to be confusing. To me, Freilich's most interesting empirical result is her study of how often prophetic patents are mis-cited in scientific publications. She looked at 100 randomly selected patents with only prophetic examples that were cited in a scientific article or book for a specific proposition, and she found that 99 were not cited in a way that made clear they were prophetic. Instead, they were cited with phrases such as "[d]ehydration reaction in gas phase has been carried out over solid acid catalysts" (emphasis added). And it is not surprising that scientist readers are misled: many prophetic examples do confusingly mimic actual experiments, with specific numerical results. In prior work, I have shown that contrary to the assertions of some patent scholars, a substantial number of scientists do look to the patent literature to learn new technical information. So it is concerning that a large number of patents are written in a way that can be confusing to readers unfamiliar with the tense rule.
Freilich and I teamed up on a new project for which we interviewed patent drafters to explore whether prophetic examples have any important benefits for patentees that could not be obtained through less misleading methods of constructive reduction to practice. In Science Fiction: Fictitious Experiments in Patents—just published in last week's Science—we explain that the answer is no. Patent prosecutors who rarely use prophetic examples argued that there is no legal reason to use fictitious experiments with specific results rather than more general predictions. Those who usually use prophetic examples agreed that more explicit labeling would not affect the patents' legal strength. The only benefit to patentees that would be reduced by requiring greater clarity seems to be any benefit that comes from confusion, which does not seem worth preserving.
The USPTO already requires prophetic examples to be labeled by tense. But the tense rule is unfamiliar to many readers (including scientists and investors), and the distinction in tenses may be literally lost in translation in foreign patent offices. (For example, the form of Chinese verbs does not change with tense.) There is no good justification for not having a more explicit label, such as "hypothetical experiment." As Freilich and I conclude: "Just because some patents are not based on actual results does not mean they need to be confusing. Scientists regularly write grant applications in a way that makes clear what preliminary data they have already acquired and what the expected goal of the proposed project is. Perhaps this is an area in which the patent system could learn from the scientific community."