Any inventor who applies for a patent runs the risk—admittedly small—that the federal government will snatch the idea away and lock it up in a vault, never to be seen again. That’s what happens when the Department of Defense declares an application to be a matter of national security. It’s rare for a random patent application to be flagged. Usually, national security secrecy is applied to the inventions of defense contractors working with the Pentagon on weapons systems, which the U.S. wants to keep foreign governments from copying.
Now, Congress is considering whether to extend similar secrecy to inventions that don’t have anything to do with defense. Virginia Republican Representative Frank Wolf tucked a provision into a November spending bill that calls on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to study the feasibility of locking away certain commercial patent applications in the name of “economic security.” The notion is that some product ideas are so good they should be hidden from countries such as China that have a history of ignoring U.S. patents and flooding overseas markets with cheap copycat products.