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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/9368/the-hoax-of-invention-history/

The Hoax of Invention History

February 3, 2009 by

[Chapter 8, live blog]

All popular business histories are replete with lies. Or to be more charitable, they are filled with untruths based on a stupid version of cause and effect: inventions happen because people take out a patent on them. This assumption is hardly ever questioned in the mainline literature. Writers look through patent records and assume that they are a record of technological advance.

The truth is far messier. The patent records are a snap shot of those who filed a patent, and nothing more.

It is because of patent-based historiography that people believe that the Wright Brothers invented the airplane, when in fact they made only a tiny contribution of combining wing warping with a rudder. It was Sir George Cayley in Britain and Otto Lilienthal of Germany who did the bulk of the work of inventing the airplane. But it was the Wright Brothers who applied for the patent and quickly used it against Glenn Curtiss who improved wing warping with movable control surfaces.

So it was with the radio, which is conventionally attributed to Guglielmo Marconi, the Nobel Prize winner in 1909. What about the contribution of Oliver Lodge in the UK or the forgotten genius Nikola Tesla or the Russian Aleksander Popov or the British Naval engineer Henry B. Jackson?

All Marconi did was ground the antenna, and also manage to win the patent wars thanks to the deep pockets of fellow aristocrat and partner Andrew Carnegie. Fifty years after the patent was granted, the Supreme Court conceded that it was unjustly given but by then, the other claimants were dead! (Marconi was consistent at least: he was a big supporter of fascism in Italy.)

Then there is the famous myth about Alexander Bell that displaced knowledge of the real inventor of the telephone, Antonio Meucci. But Meucci couldn’t afford the fee to file the patent. This oversight was fixed in a 2002 declaration by the U.S. Congress but just a bit too late.

There are an unlimited number of such cases that lead to fundamental questioning of the relationship between patents and innovation. It turns out that there are very few great leaps forward in history that are the result of a single Prometheus-style figure. Most advances are the cooperative work of many factors alive in society, with individuals improving things a bit at a time until all those improvements come together in a marketable form.

The patent has essentially nothing to do with it. And Boldin and Levine are hardly the first to point this out. You might be surprised to know that many academic economists have done empirical studies on the relationship between patents and economic advance. Of all those studies they reviewed, 23 in total, they found none that could establish a strong relationship and many that found negative relationships between patents and development: that is, that patents actually impede progress.

What they further find is that the main contribution of patents is to increase the production of patents. But that is not the same as increasing invention, for the main use of the patent is to put a stop to any similar innovation that builds upon and improves the patented thing. The patent holder rides high for a time but history is actually frozen in place. The process of imitation and sharing that led to the innovation becomes formalized, centralized, fixed, and stagnant.

They examine the case of databases, which are patented in Europe but not in the United States. The U.S. wins the competition easily. The American dominance of database production runs 2.5:1 compared with Europe. To me, this helps explain what many have noticed, namely that Europe is seriously behind in its digitalization and organization of information, with most Europeans possessing oddly antiquated intellectual capital concerning even the most basic databasing skills. Now we know: it’s not their fault; it’s the fault of their IP regimes.

Thus does chapter eight of Against Intellectual Monopoly discuss all the existing literature that makes the case–on purpose or inadvertently–against patents. It is packed with empirical detail, but in particular I’m intrigued at their review of the history of musical composition in England Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.

They find that the countries with no copyright legislation (German territories in particular) had more composer per capita than countries like England. And in England in particular, the 1750 law had the effect of bringing the entire composition industry to a grinding halt. And later, when copyright was imposed on Italy and France, it led to a diminution of composer effort.

This demonstration is intriguing beyond most music historians can possibly imagine. It solves a long-running mystery as how it came to be that the most musically educated population in the world, one with a massive history of compositional genius, would suddenly fail to participate in the progress that defined the age of Mozart and Beethoven. These historians just haven’t known where to look for clues.

This chapter makes me sad for all the great innovators whose names are not in the history books, and even sadder for all of us who have been denied great innovations because some fool managed to make it to the patent office first only to use that privilege to kill his competition the next day. Far from encouraged innovation, patent and copyright have managed to kill off so many wonderful works of art and technologies that it boggles the mind. In order to understand this, you have to look beyond the patent records. You have to train yourself to look at the unseen costs of government regulation.

{ 74 comments }

I Hate Taxes February 3, 2009 at 3:35 pm

Inventions happen because of NEEDS.

But then again, most “inventions” aren’t really inventions but rather applications.

If patents didn’t exists, most “inventions” would simply be regarded as applications of already existing stuff made to work differently.

And perversely, most applicators are being forced to patent their applications and call them “inventions” out of the fear that someone else will patent their application and prevent them from using it.

David@TR February 3, 2009 at 4:02 pm

Fascinating summary of historical inventions and patents. While I was aware of the idea of the stepping stone process of invention, I didn’t know about many of the particular examples cited.

And the end note about composers and patents is highly relevant to the current discussions of musicians’ copyright extension, etc.

Joseph P Grymin CPA February 3, 2009 at 5:12 pm

Well the lawyers would not like an “open source world” any more than they would like a truly “equal” world. Bad for their business of protecting your interests, which actually results in going after someone else’s interest.

One lawyer in a small town will starve, two will prosper!

Arend February 3, 2009 at 5:14 pm

@ I Hate Taxes who said “But then again, most “inventions” aren’t really inventions but rather applications.”

That’s why a common defintion for an innovation is… an invention implemented into a good or service and successfully introduced to the market.

I think conceptually both inventions and innovations are new combinations of resources, knowledge et cetera. The only difference between a mere invention and an innovation is that the former never found a place in consumer preference.

prettyskin February 3, 2009 at 6:14 pm

Eye opening points. Deregulate innovation, not so fast. Unjust practices created regulations. They just don’t fall from some sky fairy.

Patents put innovators speediness ahead of their accomplishments and is unreasonable for anyone to hold the patent title that notes the ‘invention’ because it is fear mongers with deep pockets way of challenging the unestablished innovator.

Darryl W. Perry February 3, 2009 at 6:23 pm

It was actually Nathan Stubblefield, a farmer from Kentucky, that invented broadcasting. He invented a device to transmit the human voice, while others were merely transmitting “Morse Code”. But, again, because he didn’t have “deep pockets”; his inventions weren’t as “useful” as those of Marconi, Tesla, Popov and the rest.

Andras February 3, 2009 at 7:07 pm

Jeffrey,
Your interpretation of 18th and 19th century European (musical) history just does not add up.
I have a different interpretation as we discussed before in e-mails:
The appearance of the professional musician, independent from royal or church mentors (Liszt as first) at 1870-s strangely coincides with the enforcing of continental copyright laws. I wouldn’t go as far as to claim that as the only reason but it might have had some effect. Although I understand that it rather served the publishers than the artists (whom are wasn’t famous for their financial genius anyway), but their consent was still a must as, at the beginning, enticing the artists was very important.

Giles February 3, 2009 at 7:43 pm

Thanks for a great series of posts! This one was particularly interesting for me, because my fiancee and I had been wondering recently what it might have been that killed English classical music after Handel (d 1759). At least now we have a suspect…

Vanmind February 3, 2009 at 7:47 pm

Yes indeed, I came up with the Information Age’s greatest innovation back in the early 90′s, yet I have always been poor and thus I subsequently saw others market similar ideas (discovered independently though at a later date) and establish multi-billion dollar companies.

Now I’m unemployed once again and broke…

engine44 February 3, 2009 at 8:06 pm

Let me get this straight. If I have invented a physical product. Spent two years of my time. Spent well over a hundred thousand dollars in research and developement. Spent fifty thousand dollars for a machinist to make an injection mold for me. Hired a chemist to help me work out a formula.
Spent more money to build a prototype. And, the product fulfills a need in the marketplace. Your telling me I don’t have a right to have a patent on my invention?
If I don’t have patent rights. There is no way in hell I can even come to market. There are major equipment manufacturers who will take my invention, copy it and sell the hell out of it. There is no way I can manufacture this with out first obtaining the patent since I will be in an entry level position in the marketplace. I also will not be able to attract investment capital with out the patent.
It seems to me that there would be no money spent in research and development on ideas by entry level participants in the market place without patent rights.

Francisco Torres February 3, 2009 at 9:37 pm

Let me get this straight[:] If I have invented a physical product[,] [s]pent two years of my time [in it,] [s]pent well over a hundred thousand dollars in research and development[,] [s]pent fifty thousand dollars for a machinist to make an injection mold for me[,] [h]ired a chemist to help me work out a formula[,] [s]pent more money to build a prototype[,] [a]nd the product fulfills a need in the marketplace. You['re] telling me I don’t have a right to have a patent on my invention?

You do not have a right to tell others not to copy your invention, since others would be just arranging their OWN property to look like your invention, but the cogs and parts of YOUR invention are still yours. Yo do have a right to waste money on a piece of paper that says “patent”, if that makes you happy.

By the way, the costs of reverse-engineering are just as great (if not greater) as the costs of development for a new product, so your seemingly dramatic progression of expenditures do not say much – you would still have the advantage of being first to arrive at the market, and still enjoy plenty of time before imitators come by.

If I don’t have patent rights[,] [t]here is no way in hell I can even come to market.

Why not? It certainly did NOT stop Henry Ford.

engine44 February 3, 2009 at 10:26 pm

Mr. Torres,
So if I, as a small entrepreneur invented the equivalent
of the turbocharger(a device to greatly increase the horse power of an engine) in my garage. Do I stand any chance at all of competing with any of the big auto manufacturers? They have the facility to make and sell the device at a much cheaper price than I could hope to without the time to develop my own manufacturing capabilities.

If I ever am in this situation, could someone please tell me a business model I could use. Remember, I am not pitting my resources against the guy down the street. I’m competing against the giants of industry.

Oh, by the way, didn’t Henry Ford have over 160 patents?

Lonnie E. Holder February 3, 2009 at 10:50 pm

Mr. Torres:

I have no idea what drug you are taking, but whatever it is, your brain is not doing so well under its influence. In the world of mechanical inventions, it is nearly always cheaper to make a copy than to develop a design. Copying a design costs a fraction of what it takes to come up with the design in the first place. I would say that copying a mechanical invention is cheaper 100% of the time, but since I have not seen all inventions, I would not wish to be so bold.

'Nuke' Gray February 3, 2009 at 11:10 pm

I think the issues can be resolved through property laws.
What you build on your property should be up to you- though I might move if you start to build an atomic bomb!
Who owns the roads? Anarcho-Capitalists leave the question open, but I’m a minarchist. I think that the roads would belong to the local tier of government, which should be turned into an open-to-all company, democratically run by its’ citizen-shareholders. This road-owner, like any owner of property, should have the right to dictate the terms of the use of its’ property. Thus I think licences are legitimate, wherever ‘public’ property is utilised, or crossed.
Public-space licences could replace intellectual property laws. These would give a monopoly to a company to advertise an invention or product over public property. Other people could still copy products, but they wouldn’t be able to advertise it, at least directly (ads in magazines might not be the same thing.) Open advertising would then be what this law would cover.
No doubt some people will want to tear this idea to pieces, but what do others think?

newson February 3, 2009 at 11:51 pm

to engine44:
your question presupposes that the commercial landscape remains unchanged after ip is scrubbed.

naturally you’re not going to invest money without substantial measures in place to safeguard your idea. trustworthy businesses, with whom it will pay to contract (subject to confidentiality agreements) will attract inventors, less reliable operators will be shunned.
as no nanny-state is looking after you, you’ll have to be responsible for choosing your partners and your contractors more carefully. but again, if there’s a demand for trustworthiness ratings, the market will spring up.

maybe if ideas were more freely accessible, the big car makers you’ve assumed to be a constant may get eaten alive by a multitude of smaller and nimbler competitors.

Gil February 3, 2009 at 11:55 pm

Likewise I believe N. Tesla had a number of patents himself.

newson February 4, 2009 at 12:01 am

to le holder:
perhaps you too should actually read the book, and then comment.

copies are made mainly after the initial product has been deemed a commercial success (so the inventor has already been rewarded). otherwise, why bother? there are millions of dud inventions out there, and reverse-engineering does have costs.

whomever gets to market in a timely fashion earns the profits, latecomers don’t.

nuke gray February 4, 2009 at 12:09 am

Another point-
if you scrap all patent and copyright laws, won’t the creative people move to countries that have IP?

newson February 4, 2009 at 12:24 am

to nick gray:
so what? ideas then migrate to no-ip countries, get commercialized quickly and cheaply and the resulting goods exported back to costly, sclerotic, ip-happy regimes.

which is what happens today, where china gets pressured by the us for being lax on ip protection/enforcement.

engine44 February 4, 2009 at 12:33 am

It seems to me that entry of invention into the world of no patent rights would nearly be impossible. The only parties who would attempt this would be those who had manufacturing facilities in place, or monopoly businesses to start with. I’m talking about physical goods here.

The invention is the physical manifistation of my idea.
Without patent rights, my idea gets zero investor capital.

When Ford Motor Co. hears of my invention they already have the manufacturing facility, distribution network and enduser support in place to get the final product to the end user in a very small time frame. They could probably do this at less than 1/2 my cost.

Without patent rights it seems there is no new entry into the market by non-wealthy new entreprenuers.

On a side note, I’ve witnessed a large equipment manufacturer reverse engineer a prototype( on which they purchased the patent from the inventor) in a matter of minutes. Then they programed machine tools to make an injection mold that was ready the next day.

andras February 4, 2009 at 12:44 am

@newson,
The USSR was a no-IP country. It was a black hole of ideas, it absorbed every practical idea but nothing came out of it. It might be not a coincidence.
You can argue which was first the chicken or the egg.

engine44 February 4, 2009 at 12:53 am

newson,

I like the idea of the private contractors to protect ideas and secure resourses.

Francisco Torres February 4, 2009 at 12:54 am

Lonnie,
I have no idea what drug you are taking, but whatever it is, your brain is not doing so well under its influence. In the world of mechanical inventions, it is nearly always cheaper to make a copy than to develop a design.

How many designs have YOU copied? Because I work in the heavy industry (cement), and I know that reverse-engineering is NOT for the faint of heart.

Copying a design costs a fraction of what it takes to come up with the design in the first place.

Depends on the design. The design for the kaleidoscope certainly took very little time to copy, but try copying a grating casting for a raw material pre-heater for cement production – it ain’t cheap, and it takes time, and you have to test it first after casting, see if the metallurgy was good. In the meantime, the original designer already had time to reap substantial profits.

Engine44,
Oh, by the way, didn’t Henry Ford have over 160 patents?

Not the one for the automobile – again, the fact that there were other cars did not stop Henry Ford from putting his on the market.

Without patent rights it seems there is no new entry into the market by non-wealthy new entrepreneurs

I don’t think so: http://www.dklevine.com/papers/ip.ch.4.m1004.pdf

newson February 4, 2009 at 1:41 am

to engine44:
you may be right that inventors initially have to deal with established businesses, and in the transition phase there will be some bitter experiences of inventors being ripped off.

word travels fast, and deals that turn out bad will get plenty of press; reliable co-developers likewise will have people beating a path to their door.
the players and market complexion will change, and vigilance will be the inventor’s best ally.

much as would happen if the sec got out of regulating the stock market. people wouldn’t be lulled into a sense of false security and there’d probably be no more sharks than today. costs would be lower without the massive “protective” structure, yet with recourse available to contract and fraud law, it wouldn’t be a jungle.

Rares Marian February 4, 2009 at 3:35 am

Actually under patent law you could just as easily publish your idea in a journal therefore establishing prior art. This would make your idea unpatentable by anyone else anyways!

IP law is a contradiction. Patents protect applications not inventions. Copyright protects content not ideas. Trademarks protect reputation not names. These are not compatible nor relevant under the same class, intellectual property.

None of it is property. It’s just an offer priority ahead of others.

Now some of you who actually have seen a patent would know they are absolutely illegible, that inventors are instructed to not ever look at them to avoid lawsuits, so the purpose, opening up of ideas, is completely unsatisfied and violated.

heuristic February 4, 2009 at 4:26 am

This article is mostly an exercise in disparaging particular famous inventors.

So in this thread first we have heard argument from utility and now argument ad hominem.

I’m still waiting for an argument from ethics!

Nathan February 4, 2009 at 4:55 am

“Let me get this straight. If I have invented a physical product. Spent two years of my time. Spent well over a hundred thousand dollars in research and developement. Spent fifty thousand dollars for a machinist to make an injection mold for me. Hired a chemist to help me work out a formula.
Spent more money to build a prototype. And, the product fulfills a need in the marketplace. Your telling me I don’t have a right to have a patent on my invention?
If I don’t have patent rights. There is no way in hell I can even come to market. There are major equipment manufacturers who will take my invention, copy it and sell the hell out of it. There is no way I can manufacture this with out first obtaining the patent since I will be in an entry level position in the marketplace. I also will not be able to attract investment capital with out the patent.
It seems to me that there would be no money spent in research and development on ideas by entry level participants in the market place without patent rights.”

Sounds like mal-investment. Some say that government throwing money at a problem often accomplishes nothing. Is it not true that patents also encourage money to chase expensive, infeasible, and frankly bad ideas? If the consumers of your invention are not clamoring for the 1% increase in productivity, it is likely your invention should not have been undertaken. The cost of your investment in the invention should not exceed the immediate benefit to the users, a price premium. Without patents, industries would go through a much more fluid, inexpensive, piecemeal improvement.

I Hate Taxes February 4, 2009 at 7:03 am

Engine44,

“Your telling me I don’t have a right to have a patent on my invention?”

Your invention is complicated, if you don’t spill the beans and don’t tell others how you did it, they will have to spend a lot of money and time themselves to reverse engineer and try to find out.

Plus, patents are costly and are just a license to sue. If you are not a multimillionaire, your competitors could copy and sell your products and how will you sue them if you are broke ?

You sue them at YOUR own expenses, not the state’s expenses.

Also, you will make more money by actually manufacturing and selling your invention than by patenting it, don’t you think ?

Also, the amount of money you spend to build a good should not prevent others to do what they want with their own goods.

No, I am against patents and copyrights.

I Hate Taxes February 4, 2009 at 7:08 am

Rares Marian,

“Actually under patent law you could just as easily publish your idea in a journal therefore establishing prior art. This would make your idea unpatentable by anyone else anyways!”

But you would have to GIVE your invention to everybody else and disclose all your trade secrets.

This is why the patent laws are bad.

Sometimes, keeping a secret is much better than a patent.

But under patent laws, it’s all or nothing, either you patent it or you give it away for free, this is outrageous.

Plenty of inventions could be kept secret and sold as is to make money and the trade secret would be a form of “patent” if you want.

By the time competition has reverse engineered your invention, you have already made improvements and moved on to other things.

Patent laws are bad.

Colin February 4, 2009 at 7:12 am

@ heuristic
“I’m still waiting for an argument from ethics!”

It is ethical for someone to keep their knowledge secret if they wish, or to sell their knowledge.

When such knowledge or parts of it become known to others, how is it ethical to deny those who have gained knowledge the right to use it as they wish?

Involuntary IP monopoly laws might be better presented as a theft of ideas from those who learned them from IP rights holders.

There is sympathy for people discover, invent and create and rightly so. This provides for them some advantage in addition to being first to market. How is it ethically justified to extend this advantage to a force protected monopoly?

The creation does not justify an ownership of the entire market. All that is justified is the right to posses and use that idea as the creator sees fit.

newson February 4, 2009 at 8:02 am

andras says:
“The USSR was a no-IP country. It was a black hole of ideas, it absorbed every practical idea but nothing came out of it. It might be not a coincidence.”

it was the lack of (physical) property rights under socialism that lead to backwardness, both cultural and scientific.

an absence of ip doesn’t mean the disappearance of profits, they’re just more evanescent.

inventors/artists got rich before ip, society didn’t regress, so your hypothesis seems null.

Mike February 4, 2009 at 10:13 am

“Another point-
if you scrap all patent and copyright laws, won’t the creative people move to countries that have IP?”

So? This will in no way prevent us from utilizing the innovations they bring to market. So we lose nothing. Let them move.

Andras February 4, 2009 at 12:37 pm

@Newson,
“inventors/artists got rich before ip”
Do you have an example? I have several for the opposite.

Egosumabbas February 4, 2009 at 1:07 pm

@Andras:
“@Newson,
“inventors/artists got rich before ip”
Do you have an example? I have several for the opposite.”

Leonardo DaVinci? I heard that people back in the day were falling all over themselves to hire out his talent to create new inventions.

Egosumabbas February 4, 2009 at 1:17 pm

In no-ip land, couldn’t you just go to a manufacturer and pitch the concept to them, and create the prototype with them on contract? All these nightmare-scenarios of inventors not coming to market betray an ironic lack of imagination.

Andras February 4, 2009 at 3:27 pm

@Ergosumabbas:
-Newson: “inventors/artists got rich before ip”
-Andras: “Do you have an example? I have several for the opposite.”
-Ergosumabbas: “Leonardo DaVinci? I heard that people back in the day were falling all over themselves to hire out his talent to create new inventions.”
-Andras: “You heard it wrong, hardly any of his invention went into practice. He was hired for his artistry: paintings and sculpting on the spot. Thus for ideas that were impossible to copy that time.
Please try again!

Andras February 4, 2009 at 3:39 pm

@Egosumabbas:”In no-ip land, couldn’t you just go to a manufacturer and pitch the concept to them, and create the prototype with them on contract? All these nightmare-scenarios of inventors not coming to market betray an ironic lack of imagination.”
Andras: Why would anybody give you a chance when he could just steal it?
All this whining about lack of imagination from people who has too unlimited (by reality) imagination.
Have you ever went through an invention/discovery process? You would know how hard to separate false ideas from productives. You wouldn’t even have a way to separate proponents of false ideas. You would not even know who to listen to as all ideas and their holders are valued at $0.
As an economist, try also to imagine the unseen when you propose anti-IP not just the temporary fast grab like with every nationalization.

nuke gray February 4, 2009 at 5:28 pm

Whilst Shakespear ended up rich without our modern copyright laws, I think he would have used them if he they had been made then, so he might not be a good example.
As for the argument that our modern laws are only for those who can afford to sue, this seems more like an argument that our legal system needs an overhaul! Why shouldn’t our Police Stations have rooms of public lawyers, publicly funded like the police, where people can freely discuss their rights?

newson February 4, 2009 at 11:00 pm

to andras:
well, rubens made plenty of money through his “factory” system (a sort of andy warhol of his day). some of his work was copyright, and some wasn’t.

shakespeare made money from performances of his plays.

technology-wise, i’m thinking of the many trade secrets that enabled craftsmen to charge scarcity value on know-how. an example is damascus steel for swords (not pattern-welded steel which is available), which to this day cannot be successfully reverse-engineered. also russian red leather, a particularly good leather for boots and razor-strops: the carefully guarded secret was lost following the bolshevik revolution, and no amount of experimenting has managed to recreate it exactly.

nuke gray February 5, 2009 at 12:42 am

Newson- are you for or against IP? Because if the Russians had run an IP system, we would know how to make that leather now, and the secret would not have been lost!
And can anyone point out to me any country in the world that has reverse-engineered Viagra, to give just one potent example of a protected drug? There exist plenty of back-yard chemists, but i never hear of knock-offs. Maybe reverse-making is not as easy as we think.

Berend de Boer February 5, 2009 at 1:39 am

I suggest the author goes to the Smithsonian museum to have a look at the exposition on the Wright Brothers. Anyone who has had a look at the real documents and evidence of these brothers will find that an article that begins with: “in fact they made only a tiny contribution of combining wing warping with a rudder. It was Sir George Cayley in Britain and Otto Lilienthal of Germany who did the bulk of the work of inventing the airplane” such an utter nonsense that we can safely dismiss the rest without reading.

Dear Mr. Tucker, the formulas and numbers of Cayley and Lilienthal did not work. The brothers had to redo it. They also invented the wind tunnel to test their theories. Their work was unique.

newson February 5, 2009 at 5:26 am

to nuke gray:
against ip!. the bolsheviks killed so many and ruined the economy it’s not surprising that know-how was also lost in the chaos.

if you’re interested in how patent-free countries got on in the face of ip protected countries, i recommend having a read of this paper by petra moser:
http://web.mit.edu/moser/www/pat501.pdf

countries without patents tended to foster growth in industries where secrecy was a better protector than dedicated legislation. dyes, food processing, watchmaking and precision instruments were extremely hard to reverse-engineer.

that was my point about damascus steel and russian leather. so prized was the russian leather that a shipwrecked crate of the 200 year-old leather was made into very expensive shoes by new and lingwood. only for the very rich…
http://www.newandlingwood.com/information.phtml

Egosumabbas February 5, 2009 at 9:43 am

“All this whining about lack of imagination from people who has too unlimited (by reality) imagination.
Have you ever went through an invention/discovery process? You would know how hard to separate false ideas from productives. You wouldn’t even have a way to separate proponents of false ideas. You would not even know who to listen to as all ideas and their holders are valued at $0.”

I’m a software engineer by trade and by hobby. All I do is fart out ideas all day long, and have been for years since I left college, and I’m paid a good salary for it. My sympathy for those “inventors” who seek to use the power of the state to create a monopoly for themselves at my expense makes me ill.

Going back to Leonardo DaVinci, I assume that instead of deliberately lying, you’re simply being lazy. From wikipedia:
“Engineering and inventions
During his lifetime Leonardo was valued as an engineer. In a letter to Ludovico il Moro he claimed to be able to create all sorts of machines both for the protection of a city and for siege. When he fled to Venice in 1499 he found employment as an engineer and devised a system of moveable barricades to protect the city from attack. He also had a scheme for diverting the flow of the Arno River in order to flood Pisa. His journals include a vast number of inventions, both practical and impractical. They include musical instruments, hydraulic pumps, reversible crank mechanisms, finned mortar shells, and a steam cannon.”

A google search returns a lot more information than that.

Egosumabbas February 5, 2009 at 9:49 am

I should say rather that I have no sympathy and their rent-seeking makes me ill.

Anon. February 5, 2009 at 10:00 am

I have been involved, directly and indirectly, in patent/copyright issues with various so-called “high-tech” companies for over 35 years, so your reported treatment of the issues, by Boldin and Levine, have generated considerable interest on my part; enough interest to actually purchase the book and digest it.

Since I was a young man, I have wondered if anyone had (or ever would have) undertaken the effort in order to compile and report on the tens of thousands of man-years worth of effort that has been expended (wasted) by technology companies on issues regarding legal compliance (aka: legal avoidance) with patent and copyright statutes. My personal activity has been limited to computer hardware and software design. In this area, I know that patents exist, primarily, as defensive legal ammunition; not so much for me to prevent you from doing something, but rather as a means to keep you from preventing me from doing something. The great majority of the patent applications I’ve seen describe extremely dubious “innovations” that, though claimed as non-obvious to one “trained in the art”, are in fact little more than obvious and logical progressions of well-known and widely used technologies. Most claims are of such a dubious nautre, even when expressed in
the overly arcane language of patent lawyers, that a lightly-experienced technician (a non-lawyer) would be able to devise the same so-called “innovation” or “improvement” in the normal course of applying one’s skills.

By and large, patents and copyrights are further vehicles by which legal technicians can continue to throttle genuine innovation while enriching themselves at the ultimate expense of consumers as well as the original inventor(s). There are many instances of failed patent applications, filed by inventors, who did not possess the economic resources to engage sufficient help from patent lawyers, in which those failed applications (publicly documented and studied by a certain scavenger-species of patent attorney) have been taken and redrafted by this or that patent attorney, without the knowledge or permission of the original submitter of the application, in order to produce a granted patent to a preditory attorney who discovers some procedural flaw in a failed application. Often times, the subsequently granted patent can then be used as a statutory device, usually against the original inventor(s), in order to pry royalties from the pockets of any
commercial entity who may be employing some portion of the “innovation” described by the issued patent.

The business practices adopted, as a result of our patent and copyright laws, have caused the implementation of procedures that are, at best, humorous and ridiculous, and, at worst, prohibitively wasteful.

I have personally been involved in such situations whereby intimate knowledge of a particular technology can (and has) resulted in corporate procedures designed to limit the ability of one or more individuals from conversation with one or more co-workers. By way of example, if I have many years of experience with, and intimate knowledge of, a particular technology that is of great interest to ABC company, I might attempt to offer my services as an employee to ABC company, presumably to improve my own economic situation. ABC company, upon learning of my interests, decides to extend a generous offer to have me as an employee. Upon arrival at my new place of employment, ABC company may learn, through their own patent lawyers, that my intimate knowledge of a given technology cannot be directly applied to some technical effort being undertaken by ABC company because of the potential legal liability which might result from my direct participation. The
legal thicket thus artificially created has, in my own case, required the following absurdity:

If a member of the so-called “clean” staff encounters some kind of technical difficulty or problem, it might seem obvious that I would be a natural source, as a new employee and as someone with experience in the problem area, to field questions regarding the solution to such problems or difficulties. This is not (was not) the case. In order to, according to the resident patent law expert(s), avoid potential patent difficulties, I will be placed in one room, by myself, while the member of the “clean” engineering staff is placed in an entirely different room. The “clean” engineer poses a question to the patent attorney. The patent attorney leaves the room, walks down the hall, and enters the room where I’m seated. The attorney then poses a question to me, outside of the hearing of the “clean” engineer, and I give a response. The lawyer then leaves the room and, presumably, walks back to the first room where, again I presume, that my answer is
repeated. As I’m not in the other room, I do not hear the response and therefore I cannot truthfully state that my response has been repeated to the “clean” engineer. I also cannot truthfully state that the question, posed to me by the patent attorney, even originated with the “clean” engineer. I was seated in the room in such a way that I cannot state, with certainty, that the “clean” engineer is actually seated somewhere down the hall, since I did not personally witness his or her arrival. Such communications, between the patent attorney and some other engineer, are regarded as privileged communications. The absurd nature of such a defensive “procedure” is obvious to anyone who has ever been engaged in such a situation, but continues to be insisted upon by legal expertise employed by ABC company. When one takes this all-too-common procedure and multiplies it across an industry, the resulting waste and non-productive nature of it demonstrates, if
demonstration were really necessary, the economic penalty that must ultimately be paid by the consumer for whatever product(s) manage to be birthed, in spite of the legal barriers thus constructed and navigated.

Jon Fibbs February 5, 2009 at 6:48 pm

I think one very good example of what you describe can be seen in the
computing world. I have nothing against Mircrosoft or Apple and do not
wish to take away from them the respect they are due, but I am a Linux
user. It is true that Linux has taken a lot of its design cue’s from
other operating systems but it is equally true that these operating
systems have taken a lot of cues from Linux as well.

The popularity of various Linux distributions has been surging lately
(Ubuntu in particular) as have other open source (or copy lefted)
applications such as Firefox and I firmly believe that this is due in
LARGE part to the open nature of their framework. While Apple maintains
dictatorial control over its products and immediately smashes anybody
they view as encroaching on their IP (Pystar), the Linux community
actively fosters and encourages group participation and in some cases
actually requires the sharing of ones work with others for eventual
improvement. This has led to monumental leaps forward and the momentum
seams only to be growing.

Apple and MS may employ thousands upon thousands of employees worldwide
but even they can make missteps (Vista). The Linux community has no
centralized control (although individual distro’s often times have
corporate backing). Anybody and everybody is free to take any piece of
the puzzle and add to or improve upon it. Anybody is free to write
programs for it. Amazingly (or not so amazingly) a sort of spontanious
order has sprung up out of the chaos and since there is no top down
control it seems to move much faster and adapt far more easily to
conditions that may arise.

Additionally, several companies have discovered (shock) that there are
in fact profits to be made from such a business model. Much like a
musician that hands our his music for free to build demand for a paid
concert ticket, corporations have realized that they can hand out the OS
and software for free and make a profit by charging for the the support
and maintenance of their software. With the economy being what it is
today (thank you fed) and companies looking to cut costs wherever
possible, this philosophy might be getting ready to make a huge impact.
Why pay Microsoft for its highly controlled and often unpopular OS and
then pay your IT department to maintain it when you can just get the OS
for free and pay your IT department to maintain it.

Anyway, I don’t mean to bore you, but I just felt that the Linux
community offered a perfect case and point for the effects of IP rights
and how not having them was far from disastrous for either business
or future product development and improvement.

Sincerely,

Jon C. Fibbs

newson February 5, 2009 at 7:12 pm

great post, anon. and like many of the contra-ip posts, one that speaks from personal experience.

it’s interesting that all the pro-ip posters acknowledge the problems inherent in the regulatory system, without being able to suggest an improved version (except that copyright duration be reduced).

Lonnie E. Holder February 6, 2009 at 8:11 am

newson:

I have read the book, cover to cover. I have twenty pages of notes regarding distortions, errors, and ignored facts. I have already promised David Levine that I would provide that information to him when I get around to putting it into a Word document.

Lonnie E. Holder February 6, 2009 at 8:15 am

newson & nuke gray:

Shakespeare made money as an actor and a playwright. However, his wealth came from being co-owner of the Globe theater. As always, it is the distributor that makes the big money, not the creator. I suspect he would have been wealthy without being co-owner of the Globe had he been able to receive a royalty for his plays performed elsewhere.

Lonnie E. Holder February 6, 2009 at 9:14 am

Francisco

How many designs have I reverse engineered? A lot. Though my past industries have been lasers and transmissions, I consider reverse engineering to be fun. For difficult cases we have taken a team of people and gathered round the product or component in question and began a sort of brainstorming to intuit how something was made. Occasionally we are unable to figure out how something was made (the ever-popular trade secret), but about 95% of the time you can. Having any patents that are available is a huge help, of course.

Re your comment on cost & reverse engineering. Yes, you are correct that it depends on the design. It also depends on whether something is protected by a trade secret. I should have put those caveats in my comment. However, because the industries I have been in are highly competitive, there is no “reaping of huge profits” before something can be reverse engineered. If patents are not a barrier, we can usually reverse engineer in a year or two, at most. Typically the competitor will not be in production yet.

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