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Put Your Ideas on Line and Stop the Patent Lords from Locking Them Away
Published on June 19, 2004 By Phil Osborn In Politics
OK, I've had it with so-called "intellectual property." It's a great idea in principle, but in practice it frankly sucks big time. Please see my "Virtually Real" article for more details. The bottom line is that, far from encouraging innovation by protecting intellectual property, the way our legal system and today's patent office works is that if you are a big corporation, then you can get and protect patents and you can pretty well ignore patents owned by anyone else who doesn't have your legal clout.

Thus, historically (see the case of Phil Farnsworth, the inventor of television, vs. RCA)and, by most accounts, now more than ever, the patent system in the U.S. has become a tool of thieves and an incentive to stealing ideas by those who have sufficient money and legal teams to protect them. "The president of RCA sought to control television the same way that they controlled radio and vowed that, 'RCA earns royalties, it does not pay them,' and a 50 million dollar legal battle subsequently ensued."

As described by Fukuyama in his modern classic "Trust," the patent system in France virtually destroyed all trust between Frenchmen. You could never know if someone had not received a patent for wearing a blue jacket at 1PM, 3rd Sundays, on the Rue de Stupidity (sorry), but you would find out when you were hauled into court, where the patent owner and the court would split the fine assessed against you. After all, it's up to you to know the law. Right? And the ten thousand patents granted by that particular court were posted. (somewhere) Right?

Similarly, today the U.S. patent system, which now supports itself on the fees for patents (!), issues patents willy-nilly on the de facto assumption that if the patent is useless, ridiculous, obvious, or prior art, then someone will object. So, inventors beware!!! If your great idea happens to coincide in some small aspect to any of millions of patents on file, then you may well find yourself in court being sued for patent infringement by one of the "Patent Lords." These are the large corporations who hire engineers just to create every possible variation on a theme and patent it, with no intention of ever producing any actual product, or who buy up patents just to employ them as weapons. They crouch silently like evil spiders waiting for someone else to slip up and create something that infringes on one of their patents, and then offer the poor inventor, with his meager legal defense funding, an "offer he can't refuse."

On that note: If you have any good ideas that you want to put out into the public domain, to help spike the wheels of the Patent Lord caravan, please put them in a comment here. Or if you know of sites, projects, books or other resources dealing with this issue, please add those pointers as well. My intention is to put the better ones into the body of this article as I receive them. If I get a good response, then maybe we can figure out how to use them more positively, as in bargaining chips for the next time a real innovator is under the gun.

In the meantime, just to get you in the mood to create, here's one site that you may find amusing, inspiring or disgusting. www.halfbakery.com. Ok. Your turn...

on Jun 19, 2004
I will comment once I receive the patent on my comments.
on Jun 19, 2004
by mentioning my idea for a digital grandfather clock here, am i jeopardizing or establishing my claim of authorship? (sorry...i couldnt help myself) im familiar with the problem. i work closely with a company that develops from several to as many as a dozen innovative new products a year for at least the past 10 years and has never seriously considered a patent in large part because of the issues youve raised. it rarely takes longer than a year for their competitors to 'introduce' nearly identical versions of the same thing. we're generally able (and theyre content) to respond by emphasizing the 'original' or 'authentic' product is only available from one source.
on Jun 20, 2004
See the current issue - July 2004, page 44, "If It's Broke, Fix It," by Gary Stix -of Scientific American for another brief review of this problem in the form of a books review of "Innovation and Discontents:...". There are several books coming out right now that take different looks at the problem, but I haven't heard any real solutions yet - just more attempts to make a broken system work.

A real solution, I believe, will require something along the lines of an explicit, real "social contract." The legal system is simply too unwieldy, slow and expensive, and it gives huge advantages to big players, and all these problems are multiplied accross borders. But suppose we had an extra-state - that is, independent of any nation-state - social contract that specified methods of dispute resolution, such as by binding arbitration, backed up with bonding, outlawry - as a last resort, etc. Then, it might be possible to sign enough people onto subsidiary agreements re intellectual property that the problem would be minimized.
on Jun 20, 2004
Hey!!!! Phil, I own the patent on that idea. Prepare to be sued.