We're so worried about other people "stealing" our ideas and we're so worried about not being able to profit from our ideas that we lose sight of the greater good. Innovation is good. The more people use our invention, assuming it is a good one, the better the world will be. The more people improve on our invention, the better the world will be.
What would our world be like if we found another way to promote innovation and reward inventors, that doesn't also stifle other innovation? I imagine it would be very awesome.
Here is an outline of a completely different way to approach patents:
Disclosure. An inventor submits a detailed description of the invention to the government, much like a patent application today. It needs to be useful and non-obvious, and it needs to be comprised of one or more claims. Many of the existing rules about what makes a valid patent would probably still apply here. The first inventor to submit an invention that is novel receives the patent. It's not possible to know when someone really invented it but it is possible to know when the patent office received the submission. There would be a fee for disclosure to cover the government's processing costs. Inventors would still need to search for prior art before they submit to avoid paying the fee on an patent application that would not be granted.
Declaration. This is where the similarity to the current patent system ends. Instead of being granted exclusive rights to use the invention, the inventor receives a right to get credit for use of the invention. Anyone who makes, uses, or sells a product that involves one or more patents must declare to the government the product and the reference the patents involved. This declaration would cost a little bit of money, just a small fee for the government to cover the cost of processing it.
Reporting. Every quarter, every organization that makes, uses, or sells products or services that involve patented inventions must declare their volume to the government. For example of "make", if a manufacturer is paid to build a million gadgets that involve patents A and B over a six month period, the manufacturer would first declare that it will be building gadgets involving patents A and B, and then at the end of each quarter (or beginning of the following quarter) it would declare how many of those gadgets it produced in that quarter. For example of "use", if a hospital uses a medical device on some patients, it would first declare that it will be using that medical device and then it would report at the end of each quarter how many times that device was used. The government would already know which patents are involved in that device because the manufacturer would have already declared it and the company selling the device to the hospital would have already declared it. The government should have rules defining what it means to use an invention, for different categories of inventions. It could be once per patient per day, or an amount of time, or some other metric that fits the category. The point is to track the use of the invention in the most natural way possible. for example of "sell", if a company is going to sell a gadget, it first declares the gadget to the government, and then reports each quarter how many of that gadget it sold and the total revenue it collected for that amount. The government doesn't need a per item price, and also the price may vary. The government just needs the total for that quarter.
Credit. The government will use the reports to assign points to each invention. Every invention referenced in a product gets the same number of points assigned. This is not a zero-sum game - if a product involves 5 inventions, then 1 point is assigned to each invention for each use of that product, or gift of that product, or each dollar of sales volume for that product. Inventions accrue more points when they are used in more products and when they are used in products that earn greater amounts of revenue. The credit is divided among all the inventors listed in the patent disclosure, either evenly among them or according to a proportion stated in the disclosure. A proportion would be stated if there is one or more primary inventors and other contributing inventors who acknowledge they had a smaller part in it than the primary inventor(s). If someone notices that a product wrongfully references a patent, meaning that patent isn't actually involved in the product, they may file a complaint with the government and if it is found that the invention does not cover the product, all points assigned from that product would be revoked, any money paid for that would become immediately due from the inventor to refund the government, and the person or company who declared the product with the wrongful reference would pay the fee for the investigation. If the claim of wrongfully referencing a patent turns out to be wrongful itself, the person or company filing the claim would pay the fee to cover the government's processing effort.
Reward. When an inventor accrues enough points, the government would pay the inventor for points accrued up to that point. When an inventor accrues enough points again, the government would pay
for the points earned since the last report. This would continue to happen until the inventor reaches a lifetime maximum amount of monetary compensation by the government for inventions. The government will continue to track the points for each inventor, will will not send any more money to inventors who have reached their lifetime maximum. After reaching the lifetime maximum, inventors still earn public recognition and awards such as ribbons or medals from the government for reaching ever higher levels of points.
Funding. The government collects taxes on sale of products and services, and also on business revenues which are also related to the sale or use of products. The more products and services are sold, for more revenue, the more money the government collects. This, in turn, funds the rewards for the inventors. People and companies who buy or use those products are therefore partially or completely funding the monetary rewards for the inventors.
Expiration. A patent may expire after a few years. When a patent expires, the government will stop awarding money to the inventor, but the government will continue to assign points to the invention according to business reports in order to publicly recognize the inventor.
Non-disclosure. Theoretically, a company could compensate an inventor for not submitting the invention to the government and therefore not receiving the awards and recognition for inventing it. This might be done in an attempt to keep the product secret for some time. However, this does not make much sense because as soon as someone else sees the product, they could (unethically) submit the patent to the government claiming they invented it. Inventors signing non-disclosure agreements would want to ensure they receive adequate compensation from the company, because they may lose their right to be compensated by the government for the effort when someone else submits the idea first.
Competition. A good idea would quickly be adopted by multiple competitors in the same space. They can still compete on price, quality, and other features.