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The patent system has always been a sort of balancing act between public and private benefits. Inventors receive the exclusive right to market and profit from their discoveries. The public learns how the inventions work and can use them for free after the patents expire. Last year, when the editors of IP Worldwidepicked the most valuable patents [see " Patent Plums"], they looked at the incentive part of the equation. Now it’s time to look at what society gets in return. Instead of picking patents that have made big bucks, the editors picked patents that have made a big difference — shaking up society for better or worse. As they did last year, they only look at active patents — you won’t find the polio vaccine or Cohen-Boyer gene-splicing patents on our list. Some patents swing two ways. They have both affected society and enriched their owners. For example, Johnson & Johnson’s cardiac stent patents, which revolutionized heart surgery, made our list last year, and are on this year’s list, too. Settling on only 10 patents wasn’t easy. For one thing, a whole lot of patents have saved lives, or revolutionized an industry, or changed business or legal landscapes. And there are no numbers to show definitively which have done it best. Further, few patents are islands unto themselves. Behind advances in biotechnology, agriculture and public health there is often a group of interlocking and dependent patents. Finally, there tends to be startlingly little consensus among patent attorneys and scientists on the social significance of inventions. Is our list subjective? Sure. Are there other patents worthy of inclusion? You bet. But here are 10– listed in the order they were issued and with the firms that prosecuted and litigated the patents on behalf of their owners — that certainly deserve a turn in the spotlight. Alan Cohen is a free-lance writer based in New York City. His e-mail is [email protected].

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