Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Absent Innovation Culture, Disowning and Other Dangerous Things

If you remember Prof. George Lakoff, by reading this title, you are right. This renowned linguist wrote a book entitled “Women, Fire and other dangerous things” where he addressed interesting aspects of categorisation. I wouldn’t elaborate on it here. The book must be read in original though. This I mentioned since I borrowed Prof. Lakoff’s style.

Present text is about the attendant hue & cry about so called corruption in Indian patent office. This tempest was set in by a small butterfly article fluttering its wings in the Mint.

What is on record is that about 130 patent examiners in Indian Patent office helped grant about 15000 patents in one year (2007-08). This has been compared to EPO statistics where 4000 examiners helped grant 54000 patents in a year. An inference is drawn without any evidence on record that the system is greased with money which makes so many applications go through smoothly.

One wonders if this is fair to so many serious examiners who might be doing their jobs right without ‘extra cash’ as a carrot. I am not saying that all is well in Indian patent offices. In fact a couple of months back, I almost fainted after receiving an answer from a guy in Patent office’s library whom I asked if Dr. Mashelkar visited there in recent past. He coolly told me to leaf through the visitor’s register there kept in a corner in which all library visitors wrote their names. He just didn’t know who Dr. Mashelkar was. But by quoting this example I wouldn’t generalise that whole office staff is absolutely ignorant.

Likewise for a few examiners who might be part of dangerous liaisons during some part of grant process, I would not condemn the whole system. It ain’t cricket!

India might be having patent protection mechanism since 1911 but patent awareness is of recent times. If Britons are to be credited for installing this system, they may not shrug off the dire failure in teaching technocrats patentese and for failure in sowing the seeds of innovation culture.

The innovation culture is just absent here. Indians traditionally are just not into observing, documenting and using the surroundings for their material well being. If I write that science culture itself is absent, I might invite an avalanche of criticism. But I will tell you something. Although I have used the word ‘canary yellow precipitate’ several times while describing an outcome of certain chemical test, I have not seen Canary till now. I even didn’t know for quite long that this was name of a bird found in western countries and not sighted at all in India. Indians get science educated in a setting where the teachings are not internalised. Above example can be contrasted with my own experience when I was TA'ing in North America. There I came across a stunning visual description of a chemical reaction product which ‘looked like a rotten beer” to an undergrad in my lab. The product really looked like a rotten beer. The pragmatic thinking of west didn’t grow overnight. West has had a long tradition since renaissance period. Indian renaissance may be dated to 1947 the year of freedom.

Now the inventors and patent examiners are also product of this culture where ‘innovation is not intrinsically respected’. Property is hated, owning something is just a matter of following grand design. ‘Disowning’ is great. “Obedience” has to be inculcated. These are the memes we in India have grown-up with.

Corruption if any (and it could be there) would be just a symptom of several dangerous & deep seated issues. Now Indians can’t claim monopoly on corruption. It will be very naïve to eliminate incidences of corrupt practices in patent offices of other countries.

If I were a Patent Examiner with a target of finishing at least 10 applications per month alongside attending several training sessions, I am better off going by what Assistant Controller allows. I won’t venture being a maverick. I wouldn’t see many mavericks upstairs too, so why set an example which will not benefit me? Moreover, why should I risk my career for the so called inventors who are busy in exploiting consumers? I am good in handling language, good in referring to the patent manual & have several applicants or their representatives eager to give me free ego trips. I wouldn’t do knit-picking what others afford to do sitting in easy-chairs ; I would just do my job because that’s my choice, last year when I visited Vaishnvi devi or Nasik an year before ; I thanked god for the bread & butter provided to me. I would rather carry on with this job, enjoy whatever ego gratification it provides without worrying about fancier pastures. I have done fairly well for my background. I am doing OK. Nothing earth shaking is happening around me. These big inventions and that entire publicised innovation news item are good as a read with a glass of fruit juice I have begun to afford these days. Nothing can be innovated, it is already with you; it is only resurrected. I cannot maintain few properties I have. Many times I think they are not mine, it is my luck that I am blessed with the material wealth I have. Things are fine the way they are. It is all pre decided.

I do not think quixotic expectations from Patent Examiners will lead to quality enhancements overnight. A person in the system is a part of the society he/she comes from. If managing more than one house, civil properties is difficult, one just can’t be expected to know the prowess of intellectual property & to know how wealth could be generated through it across the borders. It is not far stretched.

Where Innovation culture is absent & distributing something to everybody like ‘Prasad’ is commonplace, claiming ownership on the technological advances is difficult to digest. This again is not far stretched.

The persons who are not serious about respecting innovative activities, who do not respect ownership on intellectual property and who will not assert at right place on right time, will not be able to function properly as the facilitators of innovative culture.

One just can’t say - “I want these examiners to follow the Manual verbatim, if you can’t get the job done, clear the place”. The examiners are not robots.

One has to address this issue in holistic manner to attain desired goal of honest & transparent system. Smartly worded and ill founded criticism without deep analysis will only harm the system. There are better ways of catching attention than putting examiners/agents in a corner and squandering accusations.

Good structured training, adequate patience and empathy will help the examiners at various stages on the learning curve. It is surely understandable that we expect exquisitely drafted FER, a prudent application of law and overall a well home- worked boldness in performing on this extremely important position. But it is going to take time.

Patent examiner being part of the absent-innovation-culture will not feel the sanctity of patent law.


  1. Dear Dr. Gokhale
    This is an excellent narration of your years of experience with India's Patent Information System. I too feel there is a long way to go for Indian patent office. There have been very few attempts to move in this direction, infact the only one I recall is by Prof Basheer in 2007 by an internet petition passes on to the PM. But it seems that too has fallen to deaf ears.



  2. Mr. Shashwat

    Shamnad( spicyIP) and Varun ( Patent circle) are among front runners who have been pressing for a transparant and respectable conduct from all involved in the IPR activity.

    Patience is the word for Indians who are victims of late awakening.