U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo.

Are patents obsolete for digital products?

The patent system is so slow—in some cases being overtaken by the life span of a digital product—that some tech companies simply ignore it, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., said this week at an open source software event sponsored by The Hill.

“It can take, maybe, four years to get a patent,” said Polis, who chairs the Congressional Open Source Caucus with Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas. “[The] lifecycle of a digital product might be more in months. So, by the time intellectual property protection even enters the picture, the economic lifecycle of the product is over.”

As a result, some tech companies “just ignore [the patent system] altogether, don’t bother with it, don’t believe in patents and don’t file them,” he said.

Other tech firms assemble defensive patent arsenals “that are kind of mutually assured destruction should any other companies, sort of, seek a battle royale throwdown match with them on patents,” he said.

Polis wants Congress reform patents to better suit the digital age. He currently is sponsoring a bill that would impose greater transparency on companies that send licensing demand letters, which typically threaten lawsuits unless their recipients halt some type of purportedly unlawful conduct.

The caucus co-chaired by Polis is a bipartisan group of lawmakers focusing on how open source technology, which mostly refers to software code that’s free for public use, is used in the private sector and to make government more efficient and transparent.

As for patents, they’re fine for the products they were originally intended for, he argued.

“Our system of patents and so forth still works fine for mechanical innovation, and mechanical innovation will always be there,” said Polis.  “People will always be trying to build a better mousetrap and that’s wonderful and by and large we should leave that alone.”

But the modern world—with its digital, biotechnology and other innovative, rapidly evolving, cutting-edge industries—needs a system of IP protection that can keep up.

“These sort of frontiers that, when patent law was last majorly updated a century ago, were not even on the horizon,” Polis said.