In a recent retrospective, I mused about the similarity in role and function between inventors in the world of commerce and innovators in the realm of scientific research (J.B. Fenn, Annual Review of Physical Chemistry, 46:1-41, 1996). Noting that inventors can apply for a patent, which provides them with exclusive use of the invention for a limited time, I suggested that innovators in research should also receive something more palpable than references to their work in the publications of their competitors, a sort of noblesse oblige that is not always faithfully fulfilled. I also suggested that the philosophy of the patent system might provide a useful basis for rewarding scientific innovation. These general ideas apparently resonated with others of my ilk and thus led to this commentary.

The first patent of record was issued by the Republic of Florence in 1421. Since then, the custom of awarding patents...

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