Secrecy Orders on Private Inventors Rise

This just in from — a list that tracks secrecy in government —


Over the past year, 133 secrecy orders were imposed on new patent applications, limiting or preventing their disclosure on grounds that they could be “detrimental to the national security.” More than half of the new orders affected private inventors who developed their inventions without government funding or support.

The legal authority for patent secrecy orders derives from the Invention Secrecy Act of 1951, which provides for government review of patent applications related to a wide range of military technologies, and authorizes the government to regulate or prevent their disclosure.

At the end of fiscal year 2003, there were a total of 4,838 secrecy orders still in effect, according to statistics released this week by the Patent and Trademark Office under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Invention Secrecy Act and the Atomic Energy Act are the only statutes that assert a government right to prevent the publication of privately-generated information, a provision that appears to be at odds with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Secrecy orders imposed on such private inventors are termed “John Doe” orders. Last year, an unusually large 75 of the 133 new secrecy orders were John Doe orders. The nature of these secret inventions could not, of course, be ascertained.

Further information on the Invention Secrecy Act of 1951, including the declassified 1971 edition of the “patent security category review list” (newly posted) which defines the technology areas subject to patent secrecy, may be found