Vanderbilt Law Review


Sean B. Seymore

First Page



A fundamental goal of the patent system is to encourage the dissemination of technical knowledge.' The patent system achieves this goal through a quid pro quo-in exchange for the right to exclude, the inventor must fully disclose the technical details of the invention. As soon as a patent document publishes, there is hope that the public will use the technical details disclosed therein to improve upon the invention, to design around it, or to engage in other innovative activities. So while the patentee maintains the right to exclude others from practicing the invention until the patent expires, the technical information disclosed in the patent document has potential immediate value to the public. This supports the patent system's broader mission to promote scientific progress and extend the frontiers of knowledge. The Supreme Court has stated that the patent system's ultimate goal is to bring new ideas and technologies into the public domain through disclosure. In fact, the entirety of the patent system hinges on disclosure. For example, requiring a full disclosure of how to make and use the invention not only demonstrates that the inventor actually possessed what is claimed in the patent, but also ensures that the public will gain full possession of the invention once the patent expires. Achieving a robust disclosure from patent applicants is no easy task because it brings to the fore competing goals of the patent system. For example, the law must strike a balance between its interest in early disclosure and the need to transform the patent into a substantive technical document that can itself promote innovation. The law must also strike a delicate balance between the public's interest in disclosure and the inventor's incentive to disclose. A lax disclosure requirement compromises the quid pro quo, meaning that the public might get shortchanged in the so-called patent bargain. But a stringent disclosure requirement might push some inventors toward trade secrecy (i.e., no disclosure)-the antithesis of the patent system. Despite its central role in the patent system, only recently have scholars begun to seriously wrestle with the theoretical and doctrinal aspects of the disclosure function. Hopefully, this Symposium issue will stimulate future debate over and inquiry into this important issue in patent law.