Apr 16 2013
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.