More than 5,000 U.S. patents are now state secrets

Published 19 October 2007

The U.S. military and intelligence agencies can impose a gagging order on any U.S. patent; 128 have been imposed so far during the first ten months of 2007, bringing the total number of secret U.S. patents to 5,002

We do not remember the last time we entered an office and were greeted by a wall poster, or a small stand on the desk, facing the visitor, proclaiming: “My work is so secret, I don’t even know what I’m doing!” This latest piece of news brought those words to mind. More than 5,000 patents in the United States have now been decreed too sensitive to be made public, five times the number once held by America’s most celebrated inventor (Thomas Edison, that is, who had 1,000 patents to his name). Figures released by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office last week show that secrecy orders were applied to 128 patents in the first ten months of 2007 — bringing the total number to 5,002. The U.S. Invention Secrecy Act of 1951 allows U.S. military and intelligence agencies to impose a gagging order on any patent, whether from a commercial R&D or a garage inventor, if its publication threatens national security. The New Scientist reports that of the new orders, 53 were served on private inventors, compared to 29 in 2006 and 32 in 2005. The secrecy orders require inventors not to reveal details of their invention in any way, or risk two years in jail. “I suspect that the oldest secret patents date back to the early days of nuclear weapons,” says Steven Aftergood, who tracks government secrecy issues for the Washington, D.C.-based Federation of American Scientists. “There are certain technologies that have not ceased to be sensitive despite the passage of 50 or 60 years.”

Aftergood adds that the policy is unlikely to have stifled a modern-day Edison. “It would be nice to think [they] had the answer to global warming or some other miracle energy-generation technology, but it’s more likely to be a nuclear-powered can opener,” he says.