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July 17, 2014

Open Source Guru Admits to "Mismatched Incentives" and "Serious Trouble Down the Road"



RaymondEricOpenSourceElder2014-06-02.jpg "Eric S. Raymond said that the code-checking system had failed in the case of Heartbleed." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



(p. B1) SAN FRANCISCO -- The Heartbleed bug that made news last week drew attention to one of the least understood elements of the Internet: Much of the invisible backbone of websites from Google to Amazon to the Federal Bureau of Investigation was built by volunteer programmers in what is known as the open-source community.

Heartbleed originated in this community, in which these volunteers, connected over the Internet, work together to build free software, to maintain and improve it and to look for bugs. Ideally, they check one another's work in a peer review system similar to that found in science, or at least on the nonprofit Wikipedia, where motivated volunteers regularly add new information and fix others' mistakes.

This process, advocates say, ensures trustworthy computer code.

But since the Heartbleed flaw got through, causing fears -- as yet unproved -- of widespread damage, members of that world are questioning whether the system is working the way it should.

"This bug was introduced two years ago, and yet nobody took the time to notice it," said Steven M. Bellovin, a computer science professor at Columbia University. "Everybody's job is not anybody's job."


. . .


(p. B2) Unlike proprietary software, which is built and maintained by only a few employees, open-source code like OpenSSL can be vetted by programmers the world over, advocates say.

"Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow" is how Eric S. Raymond, one of the elders of the open-source movement, put it in his 1997 book, "The Cathedral & the Bazaar," a kind of manifesto for open-source philosophy.

In the case of Heartbleed, though, "there weren't any eyeballs," Mr. Raymond said in an interview this week.


. . .


The problem, Mr. Raymond and other open-source advocates say, boils down to mismatched incentives. Mr. Raymond said firms don't maintain OpenSSL code because they don't profit directly from it, even though it is integrated into their products, and governments don't feel political pain when the code has problems.

With OpenSSL, by contrast, "for those that do work on this, there's no financial support, no salaries, no health insurance," Mr. Raymond said. "They either have to live like monks or work nights and weekends. That is a recipe for serious trouble down the road."



For the full story, see:

Perlroth, Nicole. "A Contradiction at the Heart of the Web." The New York Times (Sat., April 19, 2014): B1 & B2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated APRIL 18, 2014, and has the title "Heartbleed Highlights a Contradiction in the Web.")



Raymond's open source manifesto is:

Raymond, Eric S. The Cathedral & the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly Media, Inc., 1999.






May 19, 2014

Open Source Heartbleed Bug Sends Internet "into a Panic"




Opponents of patents often point to the open source movement as an alternative. The Heartbleed bug illustrates a big downside to open source:


(p. B1) The encryption flaw that punctured the heart of the Internet this week underscores a weakness in Internet security: A good chunk of it is managed by four European coders and a former military consultant in Maryland.

Most of the 11-member team are volunteers; only one works full time. Their budget is less than $1 million a year. The Heartbleed bug, revealed Monday, was the product of a fluke introduced by a young German researcher.


. . .


The OpenSSL Project was founded in 1998 to create a free set of encryption tools that has since been adopted by two-thirds of Web servers. Websites, network-equipment companies and governments use OpenSSL tools to protect personal and other sensitive information online.

So when researchers at Google Inc. and Codenomicon on Monday stated that Heartbleed could allow hackers to steal such data, the Internet went into a panic.


. . .


(p. B3) Earlier in the day, a German volunteer coder admitted that he had unintentionally introduced the bug on New Year's Eve 2011 while working on bug fixes for OpenSSL. . . .

Errors in complex code are inevitable--Microsoft Corp., Apple Inc. and Google announce flaws monthly. But people close to OpenSSL, which relies in part on donations, say a lack of funding and manpower exacerbated the problem and allowed it to go unnoticed for two years.


. . .


The OpenSSL Project counts a sole full-time developer: Stephen Henson, a 46-year-old British cryptographer with a Ph.D. in mathematics. Two other U.K. residents and a developer in Germany fill out the project's management team.

Associates describe Mr. Henson as brilliant but standoffish and overloaded with work.


. . .


Geoffrey Thorpe, an OpenSSL volunteer on the development team, said he has little time to spend on the project because of his day job at a hardware technology company.



For the full story, see:

DANNY YADRON. "Internet Security Relies on Very Few." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., April 12, 2014): B1 & B3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated April 11, 2014, and has the title "TECHNOLOGY; Heartbleed Bug's 'Voluntary' Origins; Internet Security Relies on a Small Team of Coders, Most of Them Volunteers; Flaw Was a Fluke.")






April 9, 2014

Patent Trial and Appeal Board May Be Invalidating Low Quality Patents




One of the common complaints about the U.S. patent system for the past couple of decades is that the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) has been approving too many low quality patents, that are then used by patent holders to extort licensing fees or out-or-court settlements from alleged infringers. One way in which the America Invents Act, signed in September 2011, tried to respond to the complaint was to strengthen the post-approval re-examination process for patents. The article quoted below suggests that the strengthened process may be having the intended effect.



(p. B4) The Patent Trial and Appeal Board is a little known but powerful authority that often allows a company embroiled in a lawsuit to skip the question of whether it infringed a patent--and challenge whether the patent should have been issued in the first place.

The board was launched in September 2012 as part of the massive patent overhaul passed by Congress the previous year and is currently staffed by 181 judges, many of whom have deep experience in intellectual property or technical fields like chemical and electrical engineering. Through last Thursday it had received 1,056 requests to challenge patents, far more than were received by any federal court over the same time period.

The board is part of the Patent and Trademark Office. But so far, it hasn't shied away from upending the office's decisions to issue certain patents. As of last week, the board had issued 25 written decisions concerning patent challenges, and upheld parts of challenged patents in only a few of them.


. . .


In recent months, Randall Rader, the chief judge of the Federal Circuit, has been one of the board's most outspoken critics. At a conference of intellectual-property lawyers last fall, the judge called the board's panels "death squads...killing property rights."

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Rader said the board is too quick to toss out patents that demonstrate only modest innovation. "The board needs to incentivize human progress--and understand that it often happens one small step at a time," he said.

But many company lawyers think the board is doing exactly as it should--taking a skeptical look at patents that have added little to the world.



For the full story, see:

ASHBY JONES. "New Weapon in Intellectual Property Wars; Panel Can Upend Patent Decisions, but Some Say It Goes Too Far; 'Like Getting CAT-Scanned, MRI-ed, and X-Rayed'." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., March 11, 2014): B4.

(Note: ellipsis between paragraphs, added; ellipsis inside paragraph, in original.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 10, 2014, and has the title "A New Weapon in Corporate Patent Wars; Patent Trial and Appeal Board Can Upend PTO Decisions, but Some Say It Goes Too Far.")






April 7, 2014

William Vanderbilt Helped Disrupt His Gas Holdings by Investing in Edison's Electricity



(p. 84) But even the minimal ongoing work on the phonograph would be pushed aside by the launch of frenzied efforts to find a way to fulfill Edison's premature public claim that his electric light was working. A couple of months later, when asked in an interview about the state of his phonograph, Edison replied tartly, "Comatose for the time being." He changed metaphors and continued, catching hold of an image that would be quoted many times by later biographers: "It is a child and will grow to be a man yet; but I have a bigger thing in hand and must finish it to the temporary neglect of all phones and graphs."

Financial considerations played a part in allocation of time and resources, too. Commissions from the phonograph that brought in hundreds of dollars were hardly worth accounting for, not when William Vanderbilt and his friends were about to advance Edison $50,000 for the electric light. Edison wrote a correspondent that he regarded the financier's interest especially satisfying as Vanderbilt was "the largest gas stock owner in America."



Source:

Stross, Randall E. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007.

(Note: ellipses, and capitals, in original.)






April 3, 2014

As a Young Inventor, Edison Patented Fast



Edison filed patent applications as fast as the ideas arrived.


Source:

Stross, Randall E. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007.






March 30, 2014

Edison Sold Half-Interest in Some Patents, to Fund His Inventing




Stross discusses Edison's inventing at age 21:


(p. 8) Edison soon sought investors who would provide funds in exchange for half-interest in resulting patents.


Source:

Stross, Randall E. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007.






January 18, 2014

Patent Allows Mechanic to Profit from Invention to Ease Births



OdonDeviceEasesBirth2014-01-16.jpg "With Jorge Odón's device, a plastic bag inflated around a baby's head is used to pull it out of the birth canal." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A1) The idea came to Jorge Odón as he slept. Somehow, he said, his unconscious made the leap from a YouTube video he had just seen on extracting a lost cork from a wine bottle to the realization that the same parlor trick could save a baby stuck in the birth canal.

Mr. Odón, 59, an Argentine car mechanic, built his first prototype in his kitchen, using a glass jar for a womb, his daughter's doll for the trapped baby, and a fabric bag and sleeve sewn by his wife as his lifesaving device.


. . .


(p. A4) In a telephone interview from Argentina, Mr. Odón described the origins of his idea.

He tinkers at his garage, but his previous inventions were car parts. Seven years ago, he said, employees were imitating a video showing that a cork pushed into an empty bottle can be retrieved by inserting a plastic grocery bag, blowing until it surrounds the cork, and drawing it out.


. . .


With the help of a cousin, Mr. Odón met the chief of obstetrics at a major hospital in Buenos Aires. The chief had a friend at the W.H.O., who knew Dr. Merialdi, who, at a 2008 medical conference in Argentina, granted Mr. Odón 10 minutes during a coffee break.

The meeting instead lasted two hours. At the end, Dr. Merialdi declared the idea "fantastic" and arranged for testing at the Des Moines University simulation lab, which has mannequins more true-to-life than a doll and a jar.

Since then, Mr. Odón has continued to refine the device, patenting each change so he will eventually earn royalties on it.


. . .


Dr. Merialdi said he endorsed a modest profit motive because he had seen other lifesaving ideas languish for lack of it. He cited magnesium sulfate injections, which can prevent fatal eclampsia, and corticosteroids, which speed lung development in premature infants.

"But first, this problem needed someone like Jorge," he said. "An obstetrician would have tried to improve the forceps or the vacuum extractor, but obstructed labor needed a mechanic. And 10 years ago, this would not have been possible. Without YouTube, he never would have seen the video."



For the full story, see:

DONALD G. McNEIL Jr. "Promising Tool in Difficult Births: A Plastic Bag." The New York Times (Thurs., November 14, 2013): A1 & A4. [National Edition]

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date November 13, 2013, and has the title "Car Mechanic Dreams Up a Tool to Ease Births.")






January 17, 2014

Carnegie Failed Twice Before Bessemer Success



(p. 101) [Carnegie] . . . organized his own company to secure the rights to the Dodd process for strengthening iron rails by coating them with steel facings. Thomson agreed to appropriate $20,000 of Pennsylvania Railroad funds to test the new technology.

On March 12, 1867, Thomson wrote to tell Carnegie that his Dodd-processed rails had failed their first test: "treatment under the hammer.... You may as well abandon the Patent--It will not do if this Rail is a sample." Three days later, Thomson wrote Carnegie again, this time marking his letter with a handwritten "Private" in the top left-hand corner and "a word to the wise" penned in just below. Carnegie had apparently asked Thomson for more time--and/or money--to continue his experiments. Thomson replied that the experiments his engineers had made had so "impaired my confidence in this process that I don't feel at liberty to increase our order for these Rails."

Instead of giving up, Carnegie pushed forward, hawking his new steel-faced iron rails to other railroad presidents, attempting to get a new contract with Thomson, and reorganizing the Freedom Iron Company in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, in which he was a major investor, into Freedom Iron and Steel. In the spring of 1867, he succeeded, despite Thomson's misgivings, in getting the approval to manufacture and deliver a second 500-ton batch of steel-faced rails. The new rails fared as poorly as the old ones. There would be no further contracts forthcoming from the Pennsylvania Railroad or any other railroad.

Carnegie tried to bluff his way through. When his contacts in England recommended that he purchase the American rights to a better process for facing iron rails with steel, this one invented by a Mr. Webb, Carnegie retooled his mill for the new process. He was fooled a second time. Not only was the Webb process as impractical as the Dodd, but there was, as there (p. 102) had been with the Dodd process, confusion as to who held the American patent rights. Within a year, the company Carnegie had organized to produce the new steel-faced rails was out of business.


. . .


These early failures did not deter him from investing in other start-up companies and technologies, but he would in future be a bit more careful before committing his capital. In March 1869, Tom Scott solicited his advice about investing in the rights to a new "Chrome Steel process." Carnegie replied that his "advice (which don't cost anything if of no value) would be to have nothing to do with this or any other great change in the manufacture of steel or iron.... I know at least six inventors who have the secret all are so anxiously awaiting.... That there is to be a great change in the manufacture of iron and steel some of these years is probable, but exactly what form it is to take no one knows. I would advise you to steer clear of the whole thing. One will win, but many lose and you and I not being practical men would very likely be among the more numerous class. At least we would wager at very long odds. There are many enterprises where we can go in even."



Source:

Nasaw, David. Andrew Carnegie. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.

(Note: bracketed name, ellipsis near start, and ellipsis between paragraphs added; ellipsis internal to other paragraphs, in original.)

(Note: the pagination of the hardback and paperback editions of Nasaw's book are the same.)






November 20, 2013

Companies Do Less R&D in Countries that Steal Intellectual Property




The conclusions of Gupta and Wang, quoted below, are consistent with research done many years ago by economist Edwin Mansfield.


(p. A15) China's indigenous innovation program, launched in 2006, has alarmed the world's technology giants more than any other policy measure since the start of economic reforms in 1978. A recent report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce even went so far as to call this program "a blueprint for technology theft on a scale the world has not seen before."


. . .


A comparison with India is illustrative. India has no equivalent to indigenous innovation rules. The government also is content to allow companies to set up R&D facilities without any rules about sharing technology with local partners or the like.

These policy differences appear to have a significant influence on corporate behavior. Consider the top 10 U.S.-based technology giants that received the most patents from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) between 2006 and 2010: IBM, Microsoft, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Micron, GE, Cisco, Texas Instruments, Broadcom and Honeywell.

Half of these companies appear not to be doing any significant R&D work in China. Between 2006 and 2010, the U.S. PTO did not award a single patent to any China-based units of five out of the 10 companies. In contrast, only one of the 10 did not receive a patent for an innovation developed in India.



For the full commentary, see:

Anil K. Gupta and Haiyan Wang. "How Beijing Is Stifling Chinese Innovation." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., September 1, 2011): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the title "Beijing Is Stifling Chinese Innovation.")


Mansfield's relevant paper is:

Mansfield, Edwin. "Unauthorized Use of Intellectual Property: Effects on Investment, Technology Transfer, and Innovation." In Global Dimensions of Intellectual Property Rights in Science and Technology, edited by M. E. Mogee M. B. Wallerstein, and R. A. Schoen. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1993, pp. 107-45.


Mansfield's research on this issue is discussed on pp. 1611-1612 of:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "Edwin Mansfield's Contributions to the Economics of Technology." Research Policy 32, no. 9 (Oct. 2003): 1607-17.






November 6, 2013

Steve Jobs Felt Betrayed by Google's Page and Brin



(p. 221) From all accounts, Jobs prided himself as a canny observer not only of business but also of human character, and he did not want to admit-- especially to himself--that he had been betrayed by the two young men he had been attempting to mentor. He felt the trust between the two companies had been violated. After increasingly contentious phone calls, in the summer of 2008, Jobs ventured to Mountain View to see the Android phone and personally judge the extent of the violation. He was reportedly furious. Not only did he believe that Google had performed a bait and switch on him, replacing a noncompeting phone with one that was very much in the iPhone mode, but he also felt that Google had stolen Apple's intellectual property to do so, appropriating features for which Apple had current or pending patents.

While Jobs could not stop Google from developing the Dream version of Android, he apparently was successful, at least in the first version of the Google phone, in halting its implementation of some of the multitouch gestures that Apple had pioneered. Jobs believed that Apple's patents gave it exclusive rights to certain on-screen gestures--the pinch and the swipe, for example. According to one insider, Jobs demanded that Google remove support of those gestures from Android phones. Google complied, even though those gestures, which allowed users to resize images, were tremendously useful for viewing web pages on handheld devices.



Source:

Levy, Steven. In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.






July 25, 2013

Slow Patent System Makes U.S. Look Like Third World Country



(p. 118) The absurd length of time and the outrageous cost of obtaining a patent is a national disgrace. If we heard it took two to five years to obtain title to real property somewhere, we would assume it was a corrupt third world country. And yet that is how long it takes to receive a patent now, depending on the area of technology.


Source:

Halling, Dale B. The Decline and Fall of the American Entrepreneur: How Little Known Laws and Regulations Are Killing Innovation. Charleston, S.C.: BookSurge Publishing, 2009.






July 18, 2013

Ignoring Einstein's Mistakes by Deifying Him, Makes Us Forget His Struggles



EinsteinsMistakesBK2013-07-17.jpg
















Source of book image: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41zyL4LVYxL.jpg




(p. A13) Mr. Ohanian finds that four out of five of the seminal papers that Einstein produced in the so-called "miracle year" of 1905, when he was working as a patent inspector in Zurich, were "infested with flaws."


. . .


. . . he notes Einstein's errors for a purpose, showing us why his achievement was all the greater for them.

In this Mr. Ohanian provides a useful corrective, for there is a tendency, even today, to deify Einstein and other men of genius, treating them as if they were immortal gods. Einstein himself objected to the practice even as he reveled in his fame. "It is not fair," he once observed, "to select a few individuals for boundless admiration and to attribute superhuman powers of mind and of character to them." In doing so, ironically, we make less of the person, not more, forgetting and simplifying their struggle.


. . .


. . . Einstein's ability to make use of his mistakes as "stepping stones and shortcuts" was central to his success, in Mr. Ohanian's view. To see Einstein's wanderings not as the strides of a god-like genius but as the steps and missteps of a man -- fallible and imperfect -- does not diminish our respect for him but rather enhances it.



For the full review, see:

McMahon, Darrin M. "BOOKSHELF; Great and Imperfect." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., September 5, 2008): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)


The book under review is:

Ohanian, Hans C. Einstein's Mistakes: The Human Failings of Genius. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008.






July 4, 2013

Walker Says Those Who Call Him "Patent Troll" Want His Property Without Paying



WalkerJayPatentDefender2013-06-28.jpg














Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.




(p. B1) Jay Walker turned his idea for "name your own price" Internet auctions into a fortune by starting Priceline.com Inc. Now the entrepreneur is trying to cash in on his ideas by suing other companies.

Since it was founded in 1994 as a research lab, Walker Digital LLC has made much of its money by spinning out its inventions, like online travel agent Priceline and vending-machine firm Vendmore Systems LLC, as independent businesses.


. . .


Mr. Walker defends his newly aggressive tactics, which some critics compare to those of "patent trolls," a derogatory term for firms that opportunistically enforce patents. Without the lawsuits, he said, his patents could expire while other companies exploit them. Patents have a 20-year lifespan.

"Not only are we not a troll, but the people who want to label me are often the same ones that want to use our property and not pay," Mr. Walker said in an interview.



For the full story, see:

JOHN LETZING. "Founder of Priceline Spoiling for a Fight Over Tech Patents." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., August 22, 2011): B1 & B10.

(Note: ellipsis added.)






July 2, 2013

Property Rights, Flexible Work Rules, Open Markets Are Keys to Economic Growth



BalanceBK2013-06-28.jpg











Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.







(p. A11) Messrs. Hubbard and Kane argue, as do others, that certain policies and core principles are the key: property rights, flexible work rules, open markets. For the authors, such matters explain economic growth entirely.

To those who would cite the primacy of technological breakthroughs, Messrs. Hubbard and Kane assert that inventions only spark growth if there are systems in place (such as intellectual-property rights) that enable inventions to flourish and their value to spread. "The wheel and the windmill were invented many times," they write, "then forgotten, until finally one society had the institutional framework to implement them widely and pass them on permanently." In short, "institutions explain innovation."



For the full review, see:

Matthew Rees. "BOOKSHELF; How the Mighty Fall; The Roman empire eventually lost its economic vitality thanks to price controls, heavy taxes and state-sponsored debt relief." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., June 21, 2013): A11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 20, 2013.)


The book under review, is:

Hubbard, Glenn, and Tim Kane. Balance: The Economics of Great Powers from Ancient Rome to Modern America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.






June 22, 2013

Self-Taught Ovshinsky Created New Field in Physics and Licensed His Patents



OvshinskyStanfordSelfTaughtInventorPhysicist2013-06-21.jpg














"Stanford Ovshinsky helped to establish a new field of physics." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ obituary quoted and cited below.



(p. B5) Inspired by the structure of the brain, Stanford Ovshinsky created a new class of semiconductors that helped lead to flat-panel displays, solar cells and nickel-metal hydride batteries for cars, laptops and cameras.

Mr. Ovshinsky, who died Wednesday [October 17, 2012] at age 89, was an industrialist and self-taught scientific prodigy who helped found a new field of physics that studies the electronics of amorphous materials resembling glass.


. . .


"It was like discovering a new continent, like discovering America," said Hellmut Fritzsche, former chairman of physics department at the University of Chicago who worked with Mr. Ovshinsky. "Nobody in the past 50-60 years has created such a revolution in science."

The new materials--dubbed ovonics--were switches like transistors but worked better for many applications.

Mr. Ovshinsky used his discovery to fund a publicly traded research laboratory that teamed up with companies such as 3M Co., Atlantic Richfield Oil Corp. and General Motors, for which he developed the battery that powered the EV1, GM's electric car.

Companies around the world license his patents.

What made Mr. Ovshinsky's work particularly remarkable was that he had little connection to mainstream physics.

His education stopped after high school, . . .



For the full obituary, see:

STEPHEN MILLER. "Stanford Ovshinsky 1922-2012; An Inventor of Chips and Batteries." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., October 19, 2012): B5.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date October 18, 2012.)






June 12, 2013

Patents Turned Steam from Toy to Engine



TheMostPowerfulIdeaInTheWorldBK2013-05-13.JPG

















Source of book image: http://img2.imagesbn.com/p/9781400067053_p0_v1_s260x420.JPG



(p. 20) The obvious audience for Rosen's book consists of those who hunger to know what it took to go from Heron of Alexandria's toy engine, created in the first century A.D., to practical and brawny beasts like George and Robert Stephenson's Rocket, which kicked off the age of steam locomotion in 1829. But Rosen is aiming for more than a fan club of steam geeks. The "most powerful idea" of his title is not an early locomotive: "The Industrial Revolution was, first and foremost, a revolution in invention," he writes, "a radical transformation in the process of invention itself." The road to Rocket was built with hundreds of innovations large and small that helped drain the mines, run the mills, and move coal and then people over rails.


. . .


Underlying it all, Rosen argues, was the recognition that ideas themselves have economic value, which is to say, this book isn't just gearhead wonkery, it's legal wonkery too. Abraham Lincoln, wondering why Heron's steam engine languished, claimed that the patent system "added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius." Rosen agrees, offering a forceful argument in the debate, which has gone on for centuries, over whether patents promote innovation or retard it.

Those who believe passionately, as Thomas Jefferson did, that inventions "cannot, in nature, be a subject of property," are unlikely to be convinced. Those who agree with the inventors James Watt and Richard Arkwright, who wrote in a manuscript that "an engineer's life without patent is not worthwhile," will cheer. Either way, Rosen's presentation of this highly intellectual debate will reward even those readers who never wondered how the up-and-down chugging of a piston is converted into consistent rotary motion.



For the full review, see:

JOHN SCHWARTZ. "Steam-Driven Dreams." The New York Times (Sun., August 29, 2010): 20.

(Note: ellipsis added; italicized words in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date August 26, 2010.)


The book under review, is:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.






February 3, 2013

Steve Jobs Viewed Patents as Protecting Property Rights in Ideas



(p. 512) . . . Apple filed suit against HTC (and, by extension, Android), alleging infringement of twenty of its patents. Among them were patents covering various multi-touch gestures, swipe to open, double-tap to zoom, pinch and expand, and the sensors that determined how a device was being held. As he sat in his house in Palo Alto the week the lawsuit was filed, he became angrier than I had ever seen him:

Our lawsuit is saying, "Google, you fucking ripped off the iPhone, wholesale ripped us off." Grand theft. I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple's $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong. I'm going to destroy Android, because it's a stolen product. I'm willing to go to thermonuclear war on this. They are scared to death, because they know they are guilty. Outside of Search, Google's products--Android, Google Docs--are shit.

A few days after this rant, Jobs got a call from Schmidt, who had resigned from the Apple board the previous summer. He suggested they get together for coffee, and they met at a café in a Palo Alto shopping center. "We spent half the time talking about personal matters, then half the time on his perception that Google had stolen Apple's user interface designs," recalled Schmidt. When it came to the latter subject, Jobs did most of the talking. Google had ripped him off, (p. 513) he said in colorful language. "We've got you red-handed," he told Schmidt. "I'm not interested in settling. I don't want your money. If you offer me $5 billion, I won't want it. I've got plenty of money. I want you to stop using our ideas in Android, that's all I want." They resolved nothing.



Source:

Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.

(Note: ellipsis added.)






December 31, 2012

Ancient Recipe Rights Protection



"The Sybarites," Phylarchus [the 3rd cent. BCE historian] says, "having drifted into luxury wrote a law that women be invited to festivals and that those who make the call to the sacrifice issue their summons a year in advance; thus the women could prepare their dresses and other adornments in a manner befitting that time span before answering the summons. And if some cook or chef invented an extraordinary recipe of his own, no one but the inventor was entitled to use it for a year, in order that during this time the inventor should have the profit and others might labor to excel in such endeavors. Similarly, those who sold eels were not charged taxes, nor those who caught them. In the same manner they made those who worked with sea-purple dye and those who imported it exempt from taxes."


Source:

Athenaeus. Deipnosophistae (the Scholars at Dinner), XII 521c2-d7.

(Note: as quoted on the back cover of Journal of Political Economy 118, no. 6 (December 2010).)






December 10, 2012

With Scorned Ideas, and Without College, Inventor and Entrepreneur "Ovshinsky Prevailed"



OvshinskyStanfordAndiris2012-12-01.jpg









"Stanford R. Ovshinsky and Iris M. Ovshinsky founded Energy Conversion Laboratories in 1960." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT obituary quoted and cited below.




(p. A23) Stanford R. Ovshinsky, an iconoclastic, largely self-taught and commercially successful scientist who invented the nickel-metal hydride battery and contributed to the development of a host of devices, including solar energy panels, flat-panel displays and rewritable compact discs, died on Wednesday [October 17, 2012] at his home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. He was 89.


. . .


His ideas drew only scorn and skepticism at first. He was an unknown inventor with unconventional ideas, a man without a college education who made his living designing automation equipment for the automobile industry in Detroit, far from the hotbeds of electronics research like Silicon Valley and Boston.

But Mr. Ovshinsky prevailed. Industry eventually credited him for the principle that small quantities or thin films of amorphous materials exposed to a charge can instantly reorganize their structures into semicrystalline forms capable of carrying significant current.


. . .


In 1960, he and his second wife, the former Iris L. Miroy, founded Energy Conversion Laboratories in Rochester Hills, Mich., to develop practical products from the discovery. It was renamed Energy Conversion Devices four years later.

Energy Conversion Devices and its subsidiaries, spinoff companies and licensees began translating Mr. Ovshinsky's insights into mechanical, electronic and energy devices, among them solar-powered calculators. His nickel-metal battery is used to power hybrid cars and portable electronics, among other things.

He holds patents relating to rewritable optical discs, flat-panel displays and electronic-memory technology. His thin-film solar cells are produced in sheets "by the mile," as he once put it.


. . .


"His incredible curiosity and unbelievable ability to learn sets him apart," Hellmut T. Fritzsche, a longtime friend and consultant, said in an interview in 2005.



For the full obituary, see:

BARNABY J. FEDER. "Stanford R. Ovshinsky Dies at 89, a Self-Taught Maverick in Electronics." The New York Times (Fri., October 19, 2012): A23.

(Note: ellipses and bracketed date added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated October 18, 2012.)

(Note: in the first sentence of the print version, "hybrid" was used instead of the correct "hydride.")






October 4, 2012

Skilled Immigrants Increase U.S. Patents



(p. 31) We measure the extent to which skilled immigrants increase innovation in the United States. The 2003 National Survey of College Graduates shows that immigrants patent at double the native rate, due to their disproportionately holding science and engineering degrees. Using a 1940-2000 state panel, we show that a 1 percentage point increase in immigrant college graduates' population share increases patents per capita by 9-18 percent. Our instrument for the change in the skilled immigrant share is based on the 1940 distribution across states of immigrants from various source regions and the subsequent national increase in skilled immigration from these regions.


For the full article, from which the above abstract is quoted, see:

Hunt, Jennifer, and Marjolaine Gauthier-Loiselle. "How Much Does Immigration Boost Innovation?" American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics 2, no. 2 (April 2010): 31-56.






July 31, 2012

Richard Posner Seeks to Limit and Reform the Patent System



PosnerRichard2012-07-20.jpg













"Judge Richard Posner." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.





I am deeply conflicted about patents. On the one hand, property rights are important, both ethically and in terms of economic incentives. On the other hand, patents seem to restrict innovation.

The views of Posner are worth serious consideration. My own current view is that the patent rules need to be reformed and their implementation made more efficient. But I do not think the patent system should be abolished.


(p. B1) While technology companies continue to fight over smartphone patents, one judge has fought his way into the ring.

He is 73-year-old Richard Posner, among the most potent forces on the federal bench and an outspoken critic of the patent system.

Presiding over a lawsuit between Apple Inc. . . . and Google Inc.'s . . . Motorola Mobility in June, he dropped a bombshell, scrapping the entire case and preventing the companies from refiling their claims. The ruling startled the litigants in the case and fueled a national discussion about whether the patent system (p. B5) is broken.


. . .


In the June ruling, explaining why he wouldn't ban Motorola products from the shelves, Judge Posner said: "An injunction that imposes greater costs on the defendant than it confers benefits on the plaintiff reduces net social welfare."

Judge Posner, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has continued to press the issue.

This month, he wrote an essay in the Atlantic headlined, "Why There Are Too Many Patents In America." He said "most industries could get along fine without patent protection" and that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has done a woeful job, calling it "understaffed," and "many patent examinations...perfunctory."

He saved ammunition for juries and fellow jurists. "Judges have difficulty understanding modern technology and jurors have even greater difficulty," he wrote. He suggested several reforms to the patent system, including shortening the patent term for inventors in some industries and expanding the authority of the Patent and Trademark Office to try patents cases.


. . .


Judge Posner's intellectual curiosity is well-known and "people assume he has no political ax to grind because he's not trying to advance the fortunes of any particular segment of the economy," said Arthur D. Hellman, a law professor at University of Pittsburgh who studies the judiciary.

Yet his ruling poses a difficult question for the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, the specialized one that handles intellectual property cases, about whether infringement matters without damages.

Peter Menell, a law professor at UC Berkeley, likened it to the old thought experiment that begins "If a tree falls in the woods." He said: "If there are no damages, do you need to have a trial?"

Juge Posner also rejected Google's bid to block the sale of iPhones that allegedly infringed a so-called "standards-essential patent" owned by Google. Standards-essential patents protect innovations used in technologies that industries collectively agree to use, like Wi-Fi or 3G. A company that holds one of these patents stands to profit enormously, because its competitors have to pay it for licenses to use the technology.

But Judge Posner ruled that holders of such patents aren't entitled to injunctions. Michael Carrier, a law professor at Rutgers University, Camden, said the opinion on standards-essential patents came amid a groundswell of opposition to injunctions for such patents and could put an end to the practice among U.S. federal judges.



For the full story, see:

JOE PALAZZOLO and ASHBY JONES. "Also on Trial: A Judge's Worldview." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., July 24, 2012): B1 & B5.

(Note: all ellipses were added except for the one internal to the quote from Judge Posner's Atlantic blog posting.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date July 23, 2012 and has the title "Apple and Samsung Patent Suit Puts Judge Posner's Worldview on Trial." The print version of the title could be interpreted as a sub-title of the main title to the accompanying adjacent article. The title of the main article was "Apple v. Samsung; In Silicon Valley, Patents Go on Trial." The last two paragraphs above appear only in the online, but not in the print, version of the article.)


The Atlantic blog posting by Posner can be found at:

Posner, Richard A. "Why There Are Too Many Patents in America." In The Atlantic blog, posted on July 12, 2012 at: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/07/why-there-are-too-many-patents-in-america/259725/.

(Note: the WSJ article above implies that the Posner essay was published in the print version of The Atlantic, but I can only find it in Posner's blog on The Atlantic web site.)






April 25, 2012

Intellectual Property Rights as Refined in Case Law



The questions and answers in court illustrate how case law would approach the issue of refining and reforming intellectual property issues based on concepts of justice, but also on practical issues. (This is from Disney and Pixar lawyer Steve Marenberg questioning Dick Cook in testimony before Judge Clarence Brimmer, Jr. on November 1, 2001, the day before Monsters, Inc. was scheduled to be released.)



(p. 193) Q : So obviously the delay of the film by injunction or otherwise would affect the first weekend and the ability to gain all of the benefits you've gotten by virtue of the tact that November second is the first weekend?

A : It would be a disaster.

Q : And that would affect, then, not only the theatrical performance of the film, but what other markets in the United Sates?

A : Well, it would completely be a snowball effect in a reverse way in that it would certainly put a damper on all of the home video activities, all the DVD activities; in fact, would influence international because international is greatly influenced on how well it does in the United States, and by taking that away, it would definitely, definitely, have a big, big impact on the success of the film.

And furthermore, going further, is that it would take away any of the other ancillary things that happen, you (p. 194) know, whether it would become a television series, whether or not it becomes a piece of an attraction at the parks, whether it becomes a land at the parks, or any of those kinds of things.



Source:

Price, David A. The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

(Note: my strong impression is that the pagination is the same for the 2008 hardback and the 2009 paperback editions, except for part of the epilogue, which is revised and expanded in the paperback. I believe the passage above has the same page number in both editions.)

(Note: on p. 190 of the book, Price misspells Marenberg's name as "Marenburg.")





January 1, 2012

Ridley Argues that Our Future Can Be Bright




RationalOptimistBK.jpg

















Source of book image: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_cheRMv1X2oI/TAOvTFTnoeI/AAAAAAAAAgU/WAp7q0I_5mw/s1600/Ridley+Rational+Optimist.jpg




Ridley's book is very well-written, well-argued and well-documented. He takes on all the main arguments against a happy future for humans. I agree with most of what he writes. (One exception is that I think he underestimates the importance of patents in enabling a broader group of inventors to continue inventing.)

In the coming weeks, I will be quoting some of the more memorable, thought-provoking, or useful passages.



Book discussed:

Ridley, Matt. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. New York: Harper, 2010.






November 15, 2011

Patent on Cotton Gin Not Enough for Whitney to Get Rich




(p. 395) Whitney patented his 'gin' (a shortened form of 'engine') and prepared to become stupendously wealthy.


. . .


(p. 396) . . . , the gin truly was a marvel. Whitney and Miller formed a partnership with every expectation of getting rich, but they were disastrous businessmen. For the use of their machine, they demanded a one-third share of any harvest - a proportion that plantation owners and southern legislators alike saw as frankly rapacious. That Whitney and Miller were both Yankees didn't help sentiment either. Stubbornly they refused to modify their demands, convinced that southern growers could not hold out in the face of such a transforming piece of technology. They were right about the irresistibility, but failed to note that the gin was also easily pirated. Any halfway decent carpenter could knock one out in a couple of hours. Soon plantation owners across the south were harvesting cotton with home-made gins. Whitney and Miller filed sixty suits in Georgia and many others elsewhere, but found little sympathy in southern courts. By 1800 - just seven years after the gin's invention - Miller and Catharine Greene were in such desperate straits that they had to sell the plantation.




Source:

Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

(Note: ellipses added.)





September 13, 2011

Chinese Emphasis on Rote Learning Produces Passive Researchers



(p. A15) Hardly a week goes by without a headline pronouncing that China is about to overtake the U.S. and other advanced economies in the innovation game. Patent filings are up, China is exporting high-tech goods, the West is doomed. Or so goes the story line. The reality is very different.


. . .


But more than 95% of the Chinese applications were filed domestically with the State Intellectual Property Office--and the vast majority cover "innovations" that make only tiny changes on existing designs. A better measure is to look at innovations that are recognized outside China--at patent filings or grants to China-origin inventions by the world's leading patent offices, the U.S., the EU and Japan. On this score, China is way behind.


. . .


China's educational system is another serious challenge because it emphasizes rote learning rather than creative problem solving. When Microsoft opened its second-largest research lab (after Redmond, Wash.) in Beijing, it realized that while the graduates it hired were brilliant, they were too passive when it came to research inquiry.

The research directors attacked this problem by effectively requiring each new hire to come up with a project he or she wanted to work on. Microsoft's approach is more the exception than the rule among R&D labs in China, which tend to be more top-down.



For the full commentary, see:

ANIL K. GUPTA AND HAIYAN WANG. "Chinese Innovation Is a Paper Tiger; A closer look at China's patent filings and R&D spending reveals a country that has a long way to go." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., July 28, 2011): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)






September 3, 2011

Edison Excelled as an Organizer of Systems




(p. 131) Where Edison truly excelled was as an organizer of systems. The invention of the light bulb was a wondrous thing but of not much practical use when no one had a socket to plug it into. Edison and his tireless workers had to design and build the entire system from scratch, from power stations to cheap and reliable wiring, to lampstands and switches. Within months Edison had set up no fewer than 334 small electrical plants all over the world; (p. 132) within a year or so his plants were powering thirteen thousand light bulbs. Cannily he put them in places where they would be sure to make maximum impact: on the New York Stock Exchange, in the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago, La Scala opera house in Milan, the dining room of the House of Commons in London. Swan, meanwhile, was still doing much of his manufacturing in his own home. He didn't, in short, have a lot of vision. Indeed, he didn't even file for a patent. Edison took out patents everywhere, including in Britain in November 1879, and so secured his preeminence.


Source:

Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.





August 14, 2011

Inventor of Mason Jar Died Poor, Alone and Forgotten




(p. 74) In 1859 an American named John Landis Mason solved the challenge that the Frenchman François (or Nicolas) Appert had not quite mastered the better part of a century before. Mason patented the threaded glass jar with a metal screw-on lid. This provided a perfect seal and made it possible to preserve all kinds of foods that would previously spoil. The Mason jar became a huge hit everywhere, though Mason himself scarcely benefited from it. He sold the rights in it for a modest sum, then turned his attention to other inventions - a folding life raft, a case for keeping cigars fresh, a selfdraining soap dish - that he assumed would make him rich, but his other inventions not only weren't successful, they weren't even very good. As one after another failed, Mason withdrew into a semidemented poverty. He died alone and forgotten in a New York City tenement house in 1902.


Source:

Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.





April 9, 2011

If Countries Have Souls "Then America's Is the Patent System"



MrGatlingsTerribleMarvelBK2011-03-11.jpg















Source of book image: http://yourbooksworld.com/images/Biographies/mr-gatlings-terrible-marvel.jpg



(p. 46) [Julia Keller] discusses Lincoln's little-known interest in personally testing new Army weapons and, in a brilliant passage, rhapsodizes about creativity and the Patent Office: "If a country can be said to possess a soul, then America's is the patent system: the simple, fair method of staking claim to a new idea and getting the chance to make money from it."


For the full review, see:

MAX BYRD. "The Bullet Machine." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., November 9, 2008): 46.

(Note: bracketed name added.)

(Note: the online version of the review is dated November 7, 2008.)


Book reviewed:

Keller, Julia. Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel: The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It. New York: Viking, 2008.





March 19, 2011

Abraham Lincoln's Defence of the Patent System




William Rosen quotes a key passage from Abraham Lincoln's speech on "Discoveries, Inventions, and Improvements":


(p. 323) The advantageous use of Steam-power is, unquestionably, a modern discovery. And yet, as much as two thousand years ago the power of steam was not only observed, but an ingenious toy was actually made and put in motion by it, at Alexandria in Egypt. What appears strange is that neither the inventor of the toy, nor any one else, for so long a time afterwards, should perceive that steam would move useful machinery as well as a toy. . . . . . . in the days before Edward Coke's original Statute on Monopolies, any man could instantly use what another had invented; so that the inventor had no special advantage from his own invention. . . . The (p. 324) patent system changed this; secured to the inventor, for a limited time, the exclusive use of his invention; and thereby added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery of new and useful things.


Source:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: italics and ellipses in original.)





March 3, 2011

France Lacked Good Patent Laws; Great French Inventors "Died Penniless"



(p. 367) If one secret to sustaining an inventive culture was making inventors into national heroes, it was a secret that didn't translate well into French. Between 1740 and 1780, the French inclination to reward inventors not by enforcing a natural right but by the grant of pensions and prizes resulted in the award of nearly 7 million livres--approximately $600 million today--to inventors of largely forgot-(p. 268)ten devices, but Claude-François Jouffroy d'Abbans (inventor of one of the first working steamboats), Barthélemy Thimonnier (creator of the first sewing machine), and Airné Argand (a partner of Boulton and friend of Watt whose oil lamp became the world's standard) all died penniless.


Source:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.





February 28, 2011

Kappos Says Private Company Would Have Run Patent Office Better



KapposDavidPatent2011-02-27.jpg "David Kappos of the Patent Office, with an Edison bulb." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A1) "There is no company I know of that would have permitted its information technology to get into the state we're in," David J. Kappos, who 18 months ago became director of the Patent and Trademark Office and undersecretary of commerce for intellectual property, said in a recent interview. "If it had, the C.E.O. would have been fired, the board would have been thrown out, and you would have had shareholder lawsuits."

Once patent applications are in the system, they sit -- for years. The patent office's pipeline is so clogged it takes two years for an inventor to get an initial ruling, and an additional year or more before a patent is finally issued.

The delays and inefficiencies are more than a nuisance for inventors. Patentable ideas are the basis for many start-up companies and small businesses. Venture capitalists often require start-ups to have a patent before offering financing. That means that patent delays cost jobs, slow the economy and threaten the ability of American companies to compete with foreign businesses.



For the full story, see:

EDWARD WYATT. "U.S. Sets 21st-Century Goal: Building a Better Patent Office." The New York Times (Mon., February 21, 2011): A1 & A3.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated February 20, 2011.)





February 27, 2011

Patent Importance Survives the Results of Moser's Worlds Fairs Data Analysis



(p. 264) Petra Moser, now a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management, spent four years examining more than 15,000 different inventions exhibited at nineteenth-century worlds fairs, and their equivalents, and discovered a fact that seems at first glance to discredit the idea that patent protection was essential for innovation: Nations without patent laws were in many cases just as inventive as those with them. Or even more inventive; some of the nations best represented at those industrial fairs actively discouraged the patenting of inventions.

The reason seems to be that whether or not they enforced a patent law, smaller nations or domains, such as the Netherlands and Switzerland, were vulnerable to the theft of their innovations by competitors in larger nations. The bargain of patent protection runs two ways: The state, in return for making an idea public, offers legal recourse to its creator should someone within the state steal the idea. Since making one's invention public in a nation with patent protection offered protection against theft only up to its own borders, only a large nation offered a large enough market to make the deal a good one, and (in Moser's words) the small nations "would have been silly to patent [their] innovations."

This logic inhibited investment in entire categories of innovation. Those nations that relied on secrecy rather than patent tended to specialize in the sort of inventions that cannot be easily reverse--engineered, such as chemicals or dyes.



Source:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: italics and bracketed word in original.)





February 22, 2011

Luther Burbank's Income Suffered Because His Inventions Could Not Be Patented



BurbankLuther2011-02-05.jpg












"Luther Burbank pollinating poppies in Santa Rosa, Calif." Source of book image: online version of the NYT review quoted and cited below.



(p. C4) There is a particular type of potato at the heart of Jane S. Smith's book about Luther Burbank, a man who described himself as an "evoluter of new plants." Ms. Smith nicknames that potato "the lucky spud." That turn of phrase is one of many reasons to appreciate "The Garden of Invention," her colorful, far-reaching book about the genetic, agricultural, economic and legal issues raised by Burbank's life and legend.


. . .


This book takes more than a passing interest in Burbank's income, insofar as it reflected his legal ability to protect his scientific advances. In his early professional years he grappled with the doctrine that held that while a gold mine was real property and a machine to extract gold was intellectual property, the actual mineral belonged to anyone who could find it; ditto with potatoes. Throughout his career, even as he developed friendships with tycoons like Ford and Thomas Edison, Burbank lived under constant financial pressure to keep creating new plant products. "His income was entirely dependent on his latest marvel," Ms. Smith writes

.

For the full review, see:

JANET MASLIN. "Books of The Times; The Curious Man Lucky Enough to Create 'the Lucky Spud'." The New York Times (Mon., May 4, 2009): C4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated May 3, 2009.)


The book being reviewed, is:

Smith, Jane S. The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants. New York: The Penguin Press, 2009.





February 20, 2011

Did Bell, or Gray, Invent the Telephone?



TheTelephoneGambitBK2011-02-05.jpg













Source of book image: http://www.xconomy.com/wordpress/wp-content/images/2008/01/telephone-gambit.jpg




A great and important debate is occurring about the desirability of the patent system. Should it be abolished, or reformed? If The Telephone Gambit book is right, one of the spectacular failures of the system is in the awarding of a patent to Bell for the telephone.

That's a big "if": some of the reviewers on Amazon give reasons for doubting Shulman's story.

I hope to have time to look into this further.


(p. D10) It was a brilliant concept. But was it Bell's? What had happened during his trip to Washington that allowed Bell to abandon the blind alleys he had been exploring and to suddenly, not incrementally, find the technological solution?

The answer to that question is a tale involving high-powered Washington lawyers, political influence, a patent clerk with a booze problem, and improper access to Elisha Gray's patent filing, where Bell found the secret to making the telephone work. Mr. Shulman lays out the evidence -- documentary, scientific, chronological and psychological -- piece by damning piece. He shows most impressively how Bell's subsequent behavior and actions are entirely in keeping with those of a decent and honorable man having to live most of his long life (Bell died in 1924) with the knowledge that behind his fortune and his fame lay a single instance of brazen dishonesty, of intellectual theft.

"The Telephone Gambit" is solid history, and Seth Shulman makes it as much fun to read as an Agatha Christie whodunit by using the techniques of historiography the way Hercule Poirot used his "little gray cells." That's no small accomplishment.




For the full review, see:

JOHN STEELE GORDON. "False Claim, Future Fortune." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., JANUARY 16, 2008): D10.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


The book being reviewed, is:

Shulman, Seth. The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell's Secret. hardback ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008.





January 28, 2011

Patent Processing Delay Increases to 3.82 Years




Economists who study patents, sometimes have found that outside of pharmaceuticals, patents seldom have strong positive effects on innovation. That has led some economists and policy advisers to conclude that the patent system has more costs than benefits. But another possibility, supported by facts in the article quoted below, is that the patent system is badly designed and badly implemented.

So rather than abandon the patent system, maybe we should reform its rules, and allow the Patent Office to keep all of its fees to use for hiring and training more staff to process patents.



(p. 4A) MILWAUKEE -- A year and a half after President Barack Obama appointed an IBM Corp. executive to fix the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, it still cannot keep up with its work­load, continuing to battle the ef­fects of years of congressional raids on its funding.


. . .


Also unchanged is a bureau­cracy that publishes entire pat­ent applications online 18 months after they are filed, whether they have been acted upon or not. That puts American ingenuity up for grabs, free to anyone with an Internet connection.


. . .


Applications now languish so long that technologies can be­come obsolete before a patent is ruled upon.

Consider:

>> The agency took 3.82 years on average for each patent it is­sued last year, up from 3.66 years in 2009 and 3.47 in 2008. Many took years longer.

>> The total number of appli­cations awaiting a final decision remains stuck at 1.22 million, nearly unchanged from levels of the past three years.

>> The agency imposed a hiring freeze in 2009 and lost examiners last year, and has been unable to replace them because of budget constraints.

In 2010, the Patent Office col­lected $53 million in fees that it wasn't allowed to keep, according to limits imposed by Congress.

Delays by the Patent Office often inflict the deepest damage on garage inventors and start-up companies that may have no oth­er assets than their unprotected ideas.


. . .


"A lot of companies actually die awaiting their patent because the Patent Office is so slow," said Michel, the former patent court judge.



For the full story, see:

MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL. "Patent agency more harm than help for many inventors; Though more than 1 million applications are stalled, they're already posted online." Omaha World-Herald (Sun., January 23, 2011): 4A.

(Note: ellipses added.)





January 26, 2011

REVISE THIS ONE: Patents Needed to Provide Money for "the Many Fruitless Experiments"



(p. 234) . . . ; together, Watt and Arkwright wrote a manuscript entitled "Heads of a Bill to explain and amend the laws relative to Letters Patent and grants of privileges for new inventions," essentially a reworking of Coke's Statute of 1623 that had created England's first patent law. In addition to its policy prescriptions, which were largely an unsuccessful argument against the requirement that patent applications be (p. 235) as specific as possible, the manuscript offered a remarkable insight into Watt's perspective on the life of the inventor, who should, in Watt's own (perhaps inadvertently revealing) words, "be considered an Infant, who cannot guard his own Rights":

An engineer's life without patent is not worthwhile . . . few men of ingenuity make fortunes without suffering to think seriously whether the article he manufactures might, or might not, be Improved. The man of ingenuity in order to succeed must seclude himself from Society, he must devote the whole powers of his mind to that one object, he must persevere in spite of the many fruitless experiments he makes, and he must apply money to the expenses of these experiments, which strict Prudence would dedicate to other purposes. By seclusion from the world he becomes ignorant of its manners, and unable to grapple with the more artful tradesman, who has applied the powers of his mind, not to the improvement of the commodity he deals in, but to the means of buying cheap and selling dear, or to the still less laudable purpose of oppressing such ingenious workmen as their ill fate may have thrown into his power.


Source:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: the second ellipsis and the italics in original; the first ellipsis added.)





January 14, 2011

Taking Away Patents Would Be "Cutting Off the Hopes of Ingenious Men"



(p. 208) For Watt, the theft (as he saw it) of his work was a deeply personal violation. In (p. 209) 1790, just before realizing the extent of what he perceived as Hornblower's theft of his own work he wrote,

if patentees are to be regarded by the public, as . . . monopolists, and their patents considered as nuisances & encroachments on the natural liberties of his Majesty's other subjects, wou'd it not be just to make a law at once, taking away the power of granting patents for new inventions & by cutting off' the hopes of ingenious men oblige them either to go on in the way of their fathers & not spend their time which would be devoted to the encrease [sic] of their own fortunes in making improvements for an ungrateful public, or else to emigrate to some other Country that will afford to their inventions the protections they may merit?


Source:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: italics and ellipsis in original.)





December 17, 2010

Financial Gain an Important Motive for Invention



(p. 121) In 1930, Joseph Rossman, who had served for decades as an examiner in the U.S. Patent Office, polled more than seven hundred patentees. producing a remarkable picture of the mind of the inventor. Some of the results were predictable; the three biggest motivators were "love of inventing," "desire to improve." and "financial gain," the ranking for each of which was statistically identical. and each at least twice as important as those appearing (p. 122) down the list, such as "desire to achieve," "prestige," or "altruism" (and certainly not the old saw, "laziness," which was named roughly one-thirtieth as frequently as "financial gain"). A century after Rocket, the world of technology had changed immensely: electric power, automobiles, telephones. But the motivations of individual inventors were indistinguishable from those inaugurated by the Industrial Revolution.


. . .


In the same vein, Rossman's survey revealed that the greatest obstacle perceived by his patentee universe was not lack of knowledge, legal difficulties, lack of time, or even prejudice against the innovation under consideration. Overwhelmingly, the largest obstacle faced by early twentieth-century inventors (and, almost certainly, their ancestors in the eighteenth century) was "lack of capital." Inventors need investors.



Source:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





December 3, 2010

If the Feds Want an Effective Stimulus, They Should Spend to Reduce the Patent Backlog



In my seminar on the Economics of Technology on Tuesday night (11/30/10), Gauri presented some interesting information on intellectual property. At one point she summarized that the lag in processing patents is about three years, but it takes, on average, only about 18 hours to process a patent once the processing has begun.

Later in the seminar, we talked about a brief article by Amar Bhidé on whether large economic stimulus programs have worked in the past, and will work in the present. Bhidé was skeptical, and I am too.

But it occurred to me that one modest economic stimulus expenditure might help. Why not make the highest stimulus spending priority to hire and train enough patent examiners to reduce the patent lag from three years to, say, three weeks?


The Bhidé article mentioned above is:

Bhidé, Amar. "Don't Believe the Stimulus Scaremongers." Wall Street Journal, (Tues., February 17, 2009): A15.






November 28, 2010

Whittle "Struggled for Years to Get Funding and Time to Pursue His Idea"



DeHavilandComet2010-11-14.jpg"When Britain Ruled The Skies: A De Havilland Comet under construction in Belfast in 1954." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.


(p. C8) Frank Whittle, the brilliant British military pilot and engineer who began patenting jet designs in 1930, struggled for years to get funding and time to pursue his idea. Even after World War II, when a competing Nazi design showed what fighter jets could achieve in battle, U.S. airlines were slow to see jets' potential for passenger travel.

It took another Brit, airplane designer Geoffrey de Havilland, to awaken postwar America's aviation behemoths. While Lockheed and Douglas were still churning out rumbling, low-flying propeller planes, De Havilland's jet-powered Comet began breaking records in 1952. Only after seeing Comets scorch the stratosphere at 500 miles an hour did Howard Hughes want jetliners for TWA and Juan Trippe get interested for Pan Am.

Among American plane makers, it was a military contractor that had struggled in the prewar passenger-plane market--Boeing--that first took up the jetliner challenge. In retrospect, the outcome seems obvious. The Boeing 707 inspired the term "jet set." Boeing's iconic 747 "Jumbo Jet" opened jet-setting to the masses.

But in 1952, that outcome was far from obvious. Mr. Verhovek zeroes in on the mid-1950s, when Comets first seemed to own the world and then started plunging from the sky in pieces. The Comet's fatal design flaw--the result of an insufficient appreciation of the danger of metal fatigue--holds resonance today as both Boeing and Airbus struggle to master the next generation of jetliner materials, composites of carbon fiber and plastic.


. . .


Although "Jet Age" inevitably centers on technology, Mr. Verhovek wisely focuses as well on the outsize personalities behind world-changing innovations. There's Mr. De Havilland, a manic depressive who was so dedicated to aviation that he kept going after two of his three sons died testing his planes. Mr. Whittle, we learn, sniffed Benzedrine to stay awake, popped tranquilizers to sleep and shriveled to just 127 pounds while developing the jet engine. And Boeing chief executive Bill Allen, a meticulous lawyer, bet the company on passenger jets when not a single U.S. airline wanted one.




For the full review, see:

DANIEL MICHAELS. "Shrinking the World; How jetliners commercialized air travel--stewardesses and all." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., October 9, 2010): C8.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


The book under review is:

Verhovek, Sam Howe. Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World. New York: Avery, 2010.





November 27, 2010

Coke's Patent Law Motivated by Belief that Creative Craftsmen Were Source of Britain's Prosperity



William Rosen discusses the genesis and significance of the world's first patent law:


(p. 52) The Statute became law in 1624. The immediate impact was barely noticeable, like a pebble rolling down a gradual slope at the top of a snow-covered mountain. For decades, fewer than six patents were awarded annually, though still more in Britain than anywhere else. It was seventy-five years after the Statute was first drafted, on Monday, July 25, 1698, before an anonymous clerk in the employ of the Great Seal Patent Office on Southampton Row, three blocks from the present--day site of the British Museum, granted patent number 356: Thomas Savery's "new Invention for Raiseing of Water and occasioning Motion to all Sorts of Mill Work by the lmpellent Force of Fire."

Both the case law and the legislation under which the application was granted had been written by Edward Coke. Both were imperfect, as indeed was Savery's own engine. The law was vague enough (and Savery's grant wide-ranging enough; it essentially covered all ways for "Raiseing of Water" by fire) that Thomas Newcomen was compelled to form a partnership with a man whose machine scarcely resembled his own. But it is not too much to claim that Coke's pen had as decisive an impact on the evolution of steam power as any of Newcomen's tools. Though he spent most of his life as something of a sycophant to Elizabeth and James, Coke's philosophical and temperamental affinity for ordinary Englishmen, particularly the nation's artisans, compelled him to act, time and again, in their interests even when, as with his advocacy of the 1628 Petition of Right (an inspiration for the U.S. Bill of Rights) it landed him in the King's prisons. He became the greatest advocate for England's craftsmen, secure in the belief that they, not her landed gentry or her merchants, were the nation's source of prosperity. By understanding that it was England's duty, and--perhaps even more important--in England's interest, to promote the creative labors of her creative laborers, he anticipated an economic philosophy far more modern than he probably understood, and if he grew rich in the service of the nation, he also, with his creation of the world's first durable patent law, returned the favor.



Source:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: italics in original.)





November 23, 2010

When Inventors Could Get Patents that Were Durable and Enforceable, "the World Started to Change"



(p. 50) . . . Coke, who had . . . been made Lord Chief Justice of' England, drafted the 1623 "Act concerning Monopolies and Dispensations with penall Lawes and the Forfeyture thereof," or, as it has become known, the Statute on Monopolies. The Act was designed to promote the interests of artisans, and eliminate all traces of monopolies.

With a single, and critical, exception. Section 6 of the Statute, which forbade every other form of monopoly, carved out one area in which an exclusive franchise could still be granted: Patents could still be awarded to the person who introduced the invention to the realm--to the "first and true inventor."

This was a very big deal indeed, though not because it represented the first time inventors received patents. The Venetian Republic was offering some form of patent protection by 1471, and in 1593, the Netherlands' States-General awarded a patent to Mathys Siverts, for a new (and unnamed) navigational instrument. And, of course, Englishmen like John of Utynam had been receiving patents for inventions ever since Henry VI. The difference between Coke's statute and the customs in place before and elsewhere is that it was a law, with all that implied for its durability and its enforceability. Once only inventors could receive patents, the world started to change.



Source:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: italics in original; ellipses added.)





November 14, 2010

Steven Johnson Ignores Role of Market in Enabling Innovation



WhereGoodIdeasComeFromBK.jpg






Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.





Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map is one of my favorite books. I also enjoyed his The Invention of Air. I have not yet read his Where Good Ideas Come From. Based on the review quoted below, I do not expect to be as enthused about the new book.

I have read elsewhere that Johnson criticizes patents. If all would-be innovators were independently wealthy then innovation without patents might work. But William Rosen in The Most Powerful Idea in the World has recently shown that patents financed a key group of craftsmen who otherwise would not have been able to create the steam engines that powered the industrial revolution.

The issues are difficult and important---I will write more in a month or two after I have had a chance to read Johnson's book.


(p. A21) Mr. Johnson thinks that the adjacent possible explains why cities foster much more innovation than small towns: Cities abound with serendipitous connections. Industries, he says, may tend to cluster for the same reason. A lone company in the middle of nowhere has only the mental resources of its employees to fall back on. When there are hundreds of companies around, with workers more likely to change jobs, ideas can cross-fertilize.

The author outlines other factors that make innovation work: the tolerance of failure, as in Thomas Edison's inexorable process-of-elimination approach to finding a workable light-bulb filament; the way that ideas from one field can be transformed in another; and the power of information platforms to connect disparate data and research. "Where Good Ideas Come From" is filled with fascinating, if sometimes tangential, anecdotes from the history of entrepreneurship and scientific discovery. The result is that the book often seems less a grand theory of innovation than a collection of stories and theories about creativity that Steven Johnson happens to find interesting.

It turns out that Mr. Johnson himself has a big idea, but it's not a particularly incisive one: He proposes that competition and market forces are less important to innovation than openness and inspiration. The book includes a list of history's most important innovations and divides them along two axes: whether the inventor was working alone or in a network; and whether he was working for a market reward or for some other reason. Market-led innovations, it turns out, are in the minority.



For the full review, see:

MEGAN MCARDLE. "Serendipitous Connections; Innovation occurs when ideas from different people bang against each other." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., OCTOBER 5, 2010): A21.





November 2, 2010

William Rosen's "The Most Powerful Idea in the World"



Most-Powerful-Idea-in-the-WorldBK2010-10-24.jpg














Source of book image: http://ffbsccn.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/the-most-powerful-idea-in-the-world.jpg




The range of William Rosen's fascinating and useful book is very broad indeed. He is interested in THE question: why did the singular improvement in living standards known as the industrial revolution happen where and when it did?

The question is not just of historical interest---if we can figure out what caused the improvement then and there, we have a better shot at continuing to improve in the here and now.

I especially enjoyed and learned from William Rosen's discussion, examples and quotations on the difficult issue of whether patents are on balance a good or bad institution.

Deirdre McCloskey taught me that the most important part of a sentence is the last word, and the most important part of a paragraph is the last sentence, and the most important part of a chapter is the last paragraph.

Here are the last couple of sentences of Rosen's book:


(p. 324) Incised in the stone over the Herbert C. Hoover Building's north entrance is the legend that, with Lincoln's characteristic brevity, sums up the single most important idea in the world:

THE PATENT SYSTEM ADDED

THE FUEL OF INTEREST

TO THE FIRE OF GENIUS



In the next few weeks I will occasionally quote a few of the more illuminating passages from Rosen's well-written account.


Book discussed:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.





March 16, 2010

Myhrvold Innovates in Financing Innovation



MyhrvoldNathanIntellectualVentures2010-03-01.jpg "Nathan Myhrvold, chief of Intellectual Ventures, says patent holders are being treated unfairly." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


When Nathan Myhrvold was at Microsoft, he helped Bill Gates write The Road Ahead, a well-written book full of realistically optimistic speculation, forecast and analysis.

Besides his main initiative, discussed below, he has recently been in the news due to his bold and controversial suggestion for how to cheaply solve global warming.


(p. B1) BELLEVUE, Wash. -- Nathan Myhrvold wants to shake up the marketplace for ideas. His mission and the activities of the company he heads, Intellectual Ventures, a secretive $5 billion investment firm that has scooped up 30,000 patents, inspire admiration and angst.

Admirers of Mr. Myhrvold, the scientist who led Microsoft's technology development in the 1990s, see an innovator seeking to elevate the economic role and financial rewards for inventors whose patented ideas are often used without compensation by big technology companies. His detractors see a cynical operator deploying his bulging patent trove as a powerful bargaining chip, along with the implied threat of costly litigation, to prod high-tech companies to pay him lucrative fees. They call his company "Intellectual Vultures."

White hat or black hat, Intellectual Ventures is growing rapidly and becoming a major force in the marketplace for intellectual capital. Its rise comes as Congress is considering legislation, championed by large technology companies, that would make it more difficult for patent holders to win large damage awards in court -- changes that Mr. Myhrvold has opposed in Congressional testimony and that his company has lobbied against.


. . .


(p. B10) The issues surrounding Intellectual Ventures, viewed broadly, are the ground rules and incentives for innovation. "How this plays out will be crucial to the American economy," said Josh Lerner, an economist and patent expert at the Harvard Business School.

Mr. Myhrvold certainly thinks so. He says he is trying to build a robust, efficient market for "invention capital," much as private equity and venture capital developed in recent decades. "They started from nothing, were deeply misunderstood and were trashed by people threatened by new business models," he said in his offices here.

Mr. Myhrvold presents his case at length in a 7,000-word article published on Thursday in the Harvard Business Review. "If we and firms like us succeed," he writes, "the invention capital system will turbocharge technological progress, create many more new businesses, and change the world for the better."

In the article and in conversation, Mr. Myhrvold describes the patent world as a vastly underdeveloped market, starved for private capital and too dependent on federal financing for universities and government agencies, which is mainly aimed at scientific discovery anyway. Eventually, he foresees patents being valued as a separate asset class, like real estate or securities.

His antagonists, he says, are the "cozy oligarchy" of big technology companies like I.B.M., Hewlett-Packard and others that typically reach cross-licensing agreements with each other, and then refuse to deal with or acknowledge the work of inventors or smaller companies.


. . .


Mr. Myhrvold personifies the term polymath. He is a prolific patent producer himself, with more than 100 held or applied for. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from Princeton and did postdoctorate research on quantum field theory under Stephen Hawking, before founding a start-up that Microsoft acquired.

He is an accomplished French chef, who has also won a national barbecue contest in Tennessee. He is an avid wildlife photographer, and he has dabbled in paleontology, working on research projects digging for dinosaur remains in the Rockies.





For the full story, see:

STEVE LOHR. "Turning Patents Into 'Invention Capital'." The New York Times (Thur., February 18, 2010): B1 & B10.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated February 17, 2010.)


The Bill Gates book is:

Gates, Bill. The Road Ahead. New York: Viking Penguin, 1995.


Myhrvold's Harvard Business Review essay is:

Myhrvold, Nathan. "The Big Idea: Funding Eureka!" Harvard Business Review 88, no. 2 (March 2010): 40-50.



MyhrvoldNathanFreezeDryMachine2010-03-01.jpg "Nathan Myhrvold with a machine that freeze-dries food. Intellectual Ventures so far has paid $315 million to individual inventors." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.





July 14, 2009

The Case for Patent System Reform



(p. A13) The Patent Office now gets some 500 million applications a year, leading to litigation costs of over $10 billion a year to define who has what rights. As Judge Richard Posner has written, patents for ideas create the risk of "enormous monopoly power (imagine if the first person to think up the auction had been able to patent it)." Studies indicate that aside from the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, the cost of litigation now exceeds the profits companies generate from licensing patents.


For the full commentary, see:

L. GORDON CROVITZ. "OPINION: INFORMATION AGE; Why Technologists Want Fewer Patents." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., JUNE 15, 2009): A13.






July 6, 2009

Our "Patently Absurd" Patent System



(p. A15) The Founders might have used quill pens, but they would roll their eyes at how, in this supposedly technology-minded era, we're undermining their intention to encourage innovation. The U.S. is stumbling in the transition from their Industrial Age to our Information Age, despite the charge in the Constitution that Congress "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."


. . .

Both sides may be right. New empirical research by Boston University law professors James Bessen and Michael Meurer, reported in their book, "Patent Failure," found that the value of pharmaceutical patents outweighed the costs of pharmaceutical-patent litigation. But for all other industries combined, they estimate that since the mid-1990s, the cost of U.S. patent litigation to alleged infringers ($12 billion in legal and business costs in 1999) is greater than the global profits that companies earn from patents (less than $4 billion in 1999). Since the 1980s, patent litigation has tripled and the probability that a particular patent is litigated within four years has more than doubled. Small inventors feel the brunt of the uncertainty costs, since bigger companies only pay for rights they think the system will protect.

These are shocking findings, but they point to the solution. New drugs require great specificity to earn a patent, whereas patents are often granted to broad, thus vague, innovations in software, communications and other technologies. Ironically, the aggregate value of these technology patents is then wiped out through litigation costs.

Our patent system for most innovations has become patently absurd. It's a disincentive at a time when we expect software and other technology companies to be the growth engine of the economy. Imagine how much more productive our information-driven economy would be if the patent system lived up to the intention of the Founders, by encouraging progress instead of suppressing it.



For the full commentary, see:

L. GORDON CROVITZ. "OPINION: INFORMATION AGE; Patent Gridlock Suppresses Innovation." Wall Street Journal (Mon., JULY 14, 2008): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





April 4, 2009

Myhrvold Claims His Patent Purchases Benefit Small-Time Inventors


PatentSettlementGraph.gif Source of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. A1) Millionaire Nathan Myhrvold, renowned in the computer industry as a Renaissance man, has a less lofty message for tech companies these days: Pay up.

Over the past few years, the former Microsoft Corp. executive has quietly amassed a trove of 20,000-plus patents and patent applications related to everything from lasers to computer chips. He now ranks among the world's largest patent-holders -- and is using that clout to press tech giants to sign some of the costliest patent-licensing deals ever negotiated.

. . .

(p. A21) Mr. Myhrvold says the fact he doesn't make actual products is irrelevant. He stresses that Intellectual Ventures helps small-time inventors by providing them with an aggressive buyer to sell their patents to.

Intellectual Ventures, which has about $5 billion under management, bears some similarities to a private-equity firm that operates investment funds for the benefit of investors. However, its largest fund has an unusual structure in which fund investors are also responsible for the lion's share of the fund's returns.

It works like this: Technology companies agree to pay patent-licensing fees to inoculate themselves against potential lawsuits by Intellectual Ventures. These fees are how the fund generates its returns. As part of the deal, though, these same companies also put up the cash Mr. Myhrvold uses to buy more patents, receiving an equity stake in the fund in return.



For the full story, see:

AMOL SHARMA and DON CLARK. "Tech Guru Riles the Industry By Seeking Huge Patent Fees." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., SEPTEMBER 17, 2008): A1 & A21.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


MyhrvoldNathan2009-02-15.jpg





"Nathan Myhrvold's message for tech firms: Pay up." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.





January 13, 2009

Inability to Patent Sulfa, Delayed Its Marketing


When new uses of old, unpatentable drugs are discovered, there seems to be inadequate incentive to publicize them, and bring them to market. (For example, I think I have seen research suggesting that aspirin and fish oil capsules, are as effective in fighting heart disease as some newer drugs, but are nonoptimally utilized because of perverse incentives.) Maybe a revision of the patent law should be considered that permits some patenting of new uses of old drugs and substances?

(p. 172) It was wonderful that this powerful, inexpensive medicine was now available, but for a year after the Pasteur Institute announcement, no one marketed it seriously in its pure form as a medicine. Because it was not patentable, it was difficult for major chemical or drug firms to see a way to make much of a profit from it. It was not until months after the Pasteur group's first publication on sulfa that the president of Rhône-Poulenc, an industrial supporter of Fourneau's laboratory, visited the Pasteur Institute to hear about it. After talking with the researchers he decided to launch Septazine, a variation on pure sulfa that he felt was different enough to allow patenting---and hence profits. Septazine reached the marketplace in May 1936.


Source:

Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.




January 9, 2009

French Entrepreneur Fourneau Was Against Law, But Used It


The existence and details of patent laws can matter for creating incentives for invention and innovation. The patent laws in Germany and France in the 1930s reduced the incentives for inventing new drugs.

(p. 141) German chemical patents were often small masterpieces of mumbo jumbo. It was a market necessity. Patents in Germany were issued to protect processes used to make a new chemical, not, as in America, the new chemical itself; German law protected the means, not the end.   . . .

. . .

(p. 166) Fourneau decided that if the French were going to compete, the nation's scientists would either have to discover their own new drugs and get them into production before the Germans could or find ways to make French versions of German compounds before the Germans had earned back their research and production costs---in other words, get French versions of new German drugs into the market before the Germans could lower their prices. French patent laws, like those in Germany, did not protect the final product. "I was always against the French law and I thought it was shocking that one could not patent one's invention," Fourneau said, "but the law was what it was, and there was no reasons not to use it."



Source:

Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

(Note: ellipses added.)




November 11, 2008

Good Laws Protect the Innovator


James Burke writes well, and what he writes is often stimulating, and thought-provoking. On the other hand, some of what he writes is exasperating---he writes in sweeping generalities, and often his 'connections' are exaggerations, giving no weight (or even mention) to alternative, equally plausible accounts.

But on balance, I enjoy listening to him. Here is one of the bits I especially liked:

(p. 19) Because the rule of law exists, and above all because it encourages and protects acts of innovation with patent legislation, we in the modern world expect that tomorrow will be better than today. Our view of the universe is essentially optimistic because of the marriage between law and innovation. Law gives an individual the confidence to explore, to risk, to venture into the unknown, in the knowledge that he, as an innovator, will be protected by society.


Source:

Burke, James. The Day the Universe Changed: How Galileo's Telescope Changed the Truth and Other Events in History That Dramatically Altered Our Understanding of the World. Back Bay Books, 1995.




March 12, 2008

Controversial Patent Reform


PatentBarGraphs.gif    
Source of graph:  online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A3) The sweeping patent initiative -- backed by a business coalition dominated by technology companies such as Cisco Systems Inc. and Microsoft Corp. -- would . . . shift the balance of power of the U.S. patent system. It would make it a bit harder for holders to protect patents.  Advocates of the legislation contend the current system encourages patent litigation and costly judgments against infringers -- and stifles innovation.  They say the proposals are designed to bring patent rules in line with the rapidly changing U.S. economy, where inventions often reflect hundreds of potentially patentable ideas.

Mark Chandler, Cisco's general counsel, dismissed concerns that non-U.S. companies might gain some advantage by the bill. He said the proposed changes would strengthen companies at "the heart of innovation in the American economy," better positioning them to compete at home and abroad.

Opponents of the legislation argue that it would make it easier for foreign competitors to legally copy patented methods and products.

For the full story, see:

GREG HITT.  "Patent System's Revamp Hits Wall; Globalization Fears Stall Momentum in Congress; AFL-CIO Sends a Letter."  The Wall Street Journal  (Mon., August 27, 2007):   A3.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)




January 22, 2008

Alaska Air Used Skunk Works to Develop Check-In Innovation

 

AlaskaAirDeparturesTable.gif   Source of graphic:  online version of the WSJ article cited below.

 

The innovation described in the article excerpted below is credited as arising from a 'skunk works' project.  There's a neat book called Skunk Works that describes how Lockheed set up an autonomous unit to develop the first stealth air force technology.  (Their plant was in a smelly part of town, so it was dubbed the 'Skunk Works.')

Clayton Christensen has recommended that established incumbent companies set up skunk works operations in order to develop disruptive technologies that would not survive if they were developed within the main corporate culture and infrastructure. 

(In the article excerpted below, it is puzzling to read that Alaska Air went to the trouble to take out a patent, even though they apparently have no intention of enforcing it.) 

 

(p. B1)  ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- When the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport was planning a new concourse, prime tenant Alaska Airlines insisted on a counterintuitive design: "The one thing we don't want is a ticket counter," said Ed White, the airline's vice president of corporate real estate.

So the 447,000-square-foot Concourse C, which opened in 2004, has only one small, traditional ticket counter, even though the carrier's 1.2 million Anchorage passengers checked in through that area last year. This unconventional approach -- which uses self-service check-in machines and manned "bag drop" stations in a spacious hall that looks nothing like a typical airport -- has doubled Alaska's capacity here, halved its staffing needs and cut costs, while speeding travelers through the building in far less time.

. . .

(p. B4)  Alaska's design in Anchorage has turned heads in the industry, and in 2006 the airline was awarded a U.S. patent for the check-in process, something it calls the two-step flow-through. Mr. White says his company isn't trying to keep competitors from going down the same path, but pursued the patent more to reward the many employees who helped to bring the idea to fruition.

Other airlines quickly sent scouts up to Anchorage to check out the new concourse, including a team from Delta Air Lines Inc., Mr. White says. A few months ago, Delta completed a $26 million renovation of its check-in hall at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and the finished product looks remarkably similar to that of Alaska Airlines. Greg Kennedy, Delta's vice president for customer service there, says the new layout has enabled the airline to process passengers checking in during the peak spring break travel period in 20 to 30 minutes at most, compared with two or three hours three years ago -- and all in the same amount of square footage but 50% more usable space. Mr. Kennedy says he isn't aware of a visit to Anchorage but doesn't dispute it.

. . .  

Alaska, the nation's ninth-largest carrier by traffic, started a "skunk works" lab a decade ago to figure out how to use technology to make air travel less of a hassle for passengers. Out of that effort came the airline's ground-breaking ability to sell tickets on the Internet and allow fliers to check in online, developments other carriers quickly followed.

 

For the full story, see: 

SUSAN CAREY.  "Case of the Vanishing Airport Lines; Alaska Air Speeds Up Flow Of Passengers by Jettisoning Traditional Ticket Counters."  The Wall Street Journal  (Thurs., August 9, 2007):  B1 & B4.

 

  Source of graphic:  online version of the WSJ article cited above.

 




December 20, 2007

Entrepreneur Bets His Wealth on a Risky, Important Project

 

  "Alfred E. Mann, at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., has put nearly $1 billion of his own money into developing an insulin that can be inhaled."  Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

 

(p. C1)  LOS ANGELES, Nov. 15 — Pfizer, the world’s biggest drug company, flopped miserably with a seemingly can’t-miss idea. But Alfred E. Mann is so certain he can succeed that he is betting nearly $1 billion of his own money on the effort.

Pfizer’s failure was a form of insulin that people with diabetes could inhale rather than inject. But last month, after selling only $12 million worth of inhaled insulin in the first nine months of the year, Pfizer said it would take a $2.8 billion charge and abandon the product.

Mr. Mann, the 82-year-old chief executive and controlling shareholder of the MannKind Corporation, is not deterred. He says his company’s inhalable insulin is not just a way to avoid needles but is medically superior to Pfizer’s product and to injected insulin.

If he is right, he could help change the way diabetes is treated.

“I believe this is one of the most valuable products in history in the drug industry, and I’m willing to back it up with my estate,” Mr. Mann said at his 23,000-square-foot mansion overlooking the San Fernando Valley. The interview took place on a Saturday evening, which Mr. Mann said was the only opening in his seven-day work schedule.

Despite Mr. Mann’s remarkable entrepreneurial career — he has founded more than a dozen aerospace and medical device companies — there are people who wonder whether he has so much invested in this latest effort, both financially and emotionally, that he cannot see any odds against him.

“I don’t know of an individual who has spent as much of a personal fortune on a long shot,” said Andrew Forman, an analyst with WR Hambrecht & Company. Mr. Forman said MannKind faced numerous regulatory and patent challenges, as well as possible competition from the leaders in injected insulin, Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk, which are also developing inhalable products.

 

For the full story, see:

ANDREW POLLACK. "Betting an Estate on Inhaled Insulin." The New York Times  (Fri., November 16, 2007):  C1 & C5.

 

  "The inhaled insulin device, about the size of a cellphone."  Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

 




December 1, 2007

Von Hippel Promotes User-Driven Innovation

 

     "Eric von Hippel of M.I.T., left, and Dr. Nathaniel Sims, with hospital devices Dr. Sims has modified. Mr. von Hippel says users can improve on products."  Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

Some innovation is done by the devoted for free.  But in his books, and in the article excerpted below, I think von Hippel puts too little emphasis on the entrepreneur and the entrepreneur's profit motive, as drivers of innovation. 

One example is the Moveable Type free program that underlies this, and many other blogs.  It is often described as one of the best blog platforms, but it is hard to use for a non-techie, kludgey, and very limited in some obvious ways.  For example, there apparently is no way that I can make comments to the most recent 10 entries visible on the main blog page.  And there is only limited backup capabilities.  And the spell-checker does not have "blog" in its dictionary, and asks me if I really meant to type "bog."

You can bet that if Moveable Type was produced for profit, they would have provided users these obvious capabilities.  And I would rather pay for a more capable program, rather than get a less capable program for free.

 

(p. 5) DR. NATHANIEL SIMS, an anesthesiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, has figured out a few ways to help save patients’ lives. 

In doing so, he also represents a significant untapped vein of innovation for companies.

Dr. Sims has picked up more than 10 patents for medical devices over his career. He ginned up a way to more easily shuttle around the dozen or more monitors and drug-delivery devices attached to any cardiac patient after surgery, with a device known around the hospital as the “Nat Rack.”

. . .

What Dr. Sims did is called user-driven innovation by Eric von Hippel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. Mr. von Hippel is the leading advocate of the value of letting users of products modify them or improve them, because they may come up with changes that manufacturers never considered. He thinks that this could help companies develop products more quickly and inexpensively than with their internal design teams.

“It could drive manufacturers out of the design space,” Mr. von Hippel says.

It is a difficult idea for research and development departments to accept, but one of his studies found that 82 percent of new capabilities for scientific instruments like electron microscopes were developed by users.

. . .

One problem with the user-innovation model is that it can run into intellectual property rights protections.  . . .

. . .

. . . , Mr. von Hippel’s ideas are up against more conventional forms of user-aided design, such as sending anthropologists to study how people use products in their daily lives. Companies then translate their research into new designs.

Even some of Mr. von Hippel’s acolytes remain cautious. “A lot of this is still in the category of, ‘You could imagine this working out really well,’ ” says Saul T. Griffith, who as an M.I.T. engineering student was part of a group of kite-surfers who developed products for their sport that have since become commercialized. Mr. von Hippel wrote about Mr. Griffith in his 2005 book, “Democratizing Innovation.

 

For the full story, see:

MICHAEL FITZGERALD.  "Prototype How to Improve It? Ask Those Who Use It."  The New York Times, Section 3  (Sun., March 25, 2007):  5.

(Note:  ellipses added.) 

 

von Hippel has two main books in which he defends his user-driven innovation ideas:

von Hippel, Eric. The Sources of Innovation. New York:  Oxford University Press, 1988.

von Hippel, Eric. Democratizing Innovation. Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press, 2005.

 




October 27, 2007

Academic Entrepreneurs in a Toxic Wasteland

 

   The Berkeley Pit was once a copper mine, and now holds a lake of toxic waste.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

 

Here are a few paragraphs from a fascinating story about a couple of people who seem to be practicing what Taleb is preaching in The Black Swan:

 

BUTTE, Mont. — Death sits on the east side of this city, a 40-billion-gallon pit filled with corrosive water the color of a scab. On the opposite side sits the small laboratory of Don and Andrea Stierle, whose stacks of plastic Petri dishes are smeared with organisms pulled from the pit. Early tests indicate that some of those organisms may help produce the next generation of cancer drugs.

From death’s soup, the Stierles hope to coax life.

“I love the idea of looking at toxic waste and finding something of value,” said Ms. Stierle, 52, a chemistry researcher at Montana Tech of the University of Montana.

For decades, scientists assumed that nothing could live in the Berkeley Pit, a hole 1,780 feet deep and a mile and a half wide that was one of the world’s largest copper mines until 1982, when the Atlantic Richfield Company suspended work there. The pit filled with water that turned as acidic as vinegar, laced with high concentrations of arsenic, aluminum, cadmium and zinc.

. . .

Mr. Stierle is a tenured professor at Montana Tech, but his wife gets paid only for teaching an occasional class or if there is a grant to finance her research. From 1996 to 2001 they applied for dozens of grants, but received only rejection letters. So they financed their own research, using personal savings and $12,000 in annual patent royalty payments. In 2001, they won a six-year, $800,000 grant from the United States Geological Survey.

“Their work is considered a very high-risk approach,” said Matthew D. Kane, a program director at the National Science Foundation. “It takes a long time to get funding, and some luck to find active compounds.”

Unlike scientists at large research universities, who commonly teach only one class a year and employ graduate students to run their laboratories, Mr. Stierle teaches four classes each semester at a college with 2,000 undergraduates and no major research presence.

. . .

The couple said they were negotiating privately with a pharmaceutical company to test some of the compounds they have discovered and possibly turn them into drugs. As they wait, they open another Mason jar filled with murky pit water, draw a sample and return to work.

“The pit very easily could have been a complete waste of time,” Mr. Stierle said. “We just had luck and worked our butts off. We take that first walk into the dark.”

 

For the full story, see:

CHRISTOPHER MAAG.  "In the Battle Against Cancer, Researchers Find Hope in a Toxic Wasteland."   The New York Times  (Tues., October 9, 2007):  A21.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 

BerkeleyPitMap.gif   In the photo immediately above, Don and Andrea Steirle work in their lab.  The map to the left shows the location of the Berkeley Pit.  Source of the photo and map:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

 




September 28, 2007

"We're Not Looking to Achieve Incremental Advances"

 

LevinsonArthurGenentechCEO.jpg   Genentech CEO Dr. Arthur D. Levinson.  Source of image:  online version of the WSJ article cited below.

 

(p. B1)  WSJ: You have multiple blockbuster biotech drugs on the market and more on the way. In such an uncertain business, how do you manage scientists to achieve that kind of success?

Dr. Levinson: We are first and foremost committed to doing great science. If a drug can't be the first in class or the best in class, we're just not interested. We're not looking to achieve incremental advances or extend patents or do X, Y, Z unless it is going to really matter for patients. That allows us to bring in phenomenal scientists and encourage them to do the basic and translational research.

We decided 15 years ago that we would be committing (p. B2) to oncology, which at the time for us was new. We are now the leading producer of anticancer drugs in the United States. We took a lot of risks. In many cases, those risks paid off. We are now also in immunology. Again, the role of management here is to set the broad direction and then hire absolutely the best scientists and bring them in and say, 'Do your stuff.'

 

For the full interview, see:

MARILYN CHASE. The Wall Street Journal "How Genentech Wins At Blockbuster Drugs CEO to Critics of Prices: 'Give Me a Break'."   The Wall Street Journal  (Tues., June 5, 2007):  B1 & B2.

 

 GenentechStockPrices.gif   Source of graph:  online version of the WSJ article cited above.

 




September 21, 2007

The Case for Patent Law Reform

 

The author of the commentary quoted below is the head lawyer for Intel.  I believe that the evidence is strong that patents can provide strong incentives for innovation.  But the devil is in the details.  I have not studied the Patent Reform Act of 2007, so I am not sure whether, overall, it is an improvement over the current rules.  But the case for reform is strong, and the topic is one that highly deserves further research. 

 

(p. A15) The U.S. patent system is beginning to show its age; outpaced by the swift evolution of technology and commerce, it increasingly favors speculators over innovators, impeding innovation and economic growth. Fortunately, the bipartisan "Patent Reform Act of 2007," introduced in both the House and Senate, would improve the process for granting patents, and rebalance court rules and procedures to ensure fair treatment when patents wind up in litigation. The Senate Judiciary Committee will take up S.1145 today.

Congress needs to pass this bill, during this session, as the need for reform is clear. Nationwide, the number of patent lawsuits nearly tripled between 1991 and 2004, and the number of cases between 2001 and 2005 grew nearly 20%. Until 1990, only one patent damages award exceeded $100 million; more than 10 judgments and settlements were entered in the last five years, and at least four topped $500 million. One recent decision topped $1.5 billion.

The number of questionable, loosely defined patents, moreover, is rising. One company holds patents that it claims broadly cover current technologies that allow people to make phone calls over the Internet. Another has staked a claim on streaming video over the Internet generally and has pursued colleges for royalties on their distance-learning programs. In 2002, a five-year-old boy patented a method of swinging on a swing.

Unfortunately, under current law, parties that want to innovate in areas covered by questionable patents have only two options, both of them bad: an ineffective, rarely used re-examination process, or litigation -- the average cost of which is, by some estimates, $4.5 million. This impedes innovation, as the FTC noted: "One firm's questionable patent may lead its competitor to forgo R&D in the areas that the patent improperly covers."

 

For the full commentary, see: 

BRUCE SEWELL.  "Patent Nonsense."  The Wall Street Journal  (Thurs., July 12, 2007):  A15. 

 




August 8, 2007

Dinner with Hayek

 

Recently (6/10/07) at dinner with a group of foreign graduate students at George Mason University, I learned that one of the students was from Venezuela, and so I mentioned to her that one of my friends during my graduate student days at the University of Chicago had been from Venezuela, and that he had been responsible for bring F.A. Hayek to speak at the University.  When I said his name was “Cartea,” she said that she had had a professor named Cartea who was an admirer of Hayek, but who had unfortunately died in an accident a few years ago.

This was surprising and distressing news.

Cartea had charisma, and was not afraid to use it.  He was not always a model of responsible behavior, but he had such child-like enthusiasm, that it was hard to be mad at him for long.  One of his main weaknesses is that he loved books.  Often he would bring me his latest purchase from the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, hold it up, and say in his inimitable accent and cadence:  “Pure Gold!”    

In Chicago, I had a car, and Cartea did not.  He asked if I would drive him to pick up Hayek and Hayek’s wife at the airport.  When we got to the airport, Cartea was hungry and wanted to stop and get a hamburger.  I thought it was not prudent to take the time to do this, but Cartea was insistent, and we stopped. 

We ended up getting to the gate just barely by the time of the Hayeks’ scheduled arrival (these were the innocent pre-terrorism days when you could actually meet guests at their gate).  But to our dismay, we learned that the flight at arrived early, and apparently Hayek had grabbed a cab to the University.

So we drove to the Center for Continuing Education where the Hayeks were staying.  There we learned that they had headed to the then-best restaurant in Hyde Park, called something like the “Courtyard.” 

At some point along the way, while still in the airport I think, Cartea purchased a single rose.  We walked into the restaurant, and found the Hayeks.  And then, with a charm that I could admire, but not imitate, he flamboyantly presented the rose to Mrs. Hayek, to her obvious delight.  (I do not remember what he said, or how he explained-away our absence from at the airport---I do remember that the word “hamburger” did not pass his lips.

The pleased Hayek invited us to join them for dinner.  We did.  It was just me, Cartea, and the Hayeks, and it stuns me to think that of the four, only I am still alive.

I would like to be able to report that some deep issues of classical liberal political theory were discussed, but if they were, I have no memory of that.  My memory is that the discussion was mainly of a personal, small-talk variety.  For example, one or both of the Hayeks had long wanted to view a solar eclipse, so they had recently flown to somewhere in the world where such an eclipse had occurred.

And I remember Hayek teasing Mrs. Hayek for delaying their being together by marrying someone else before Hayek, and I remember her teasing him back that he should have made his intentions clear earlier.  (This was the second Mrs. Hayek; at some point I learned that he had divorced the first Mrs. Hayek.)

I only have a couple of other memories of this visit of Hayek to Chicago.  One was when (the next day?) Cartea had me drive Hayek to a press conference downtown.  Hayek thought I was going the wrong way, and was annoyed.  I was pretty sure I was going the right way (and it turned out I was right), but it was stressful for a graduate student to be disagreeing with an insistent, and highly admired, Nobel-prize-winner.

Another disjointed memory is that sometime during the visit I asked him to sign my copy of the first volume of Law, Legislation, and Liberty.  This he did with a disdainful frown, seeming to be annoyed that I would bother him with such a foolish request.

 

(Note one:  I do not remember when the dinner described above occurred, although it could be learned; I bet David Theroux of the Independent Institute would remember.  I was at the University of Chicago from the fall of 1974 through the spring of 1981; and I think the Hayek visit occurred sometime during the latter half of this period.)

(Note two:  this was not the first time I had encountered Hayek.  I drove down to St. Louis with Joe Cobb and another libertarian Chicago student whose name I regrettably cannot remember.  I believe that it was on this occasion that I had a good talk with Phylis Schlafly’s son, who made an articulate economic argument against patents; I think he even gave me an article by someone to bolster his case.  Ben Rogge introduced Hayek.  What I remember about the introduction was that in part of it, Rogge made a polite, but strong, swipe at Ayn Rand, saying I think, that Hayek’s thinking was a much sounder grounding for a libertarian philosophy.  Rogge knew I was a strong Rand enthusiast, so I imagined that he was making the comment mainly for my benefit.  Before the introduction, Rogge offered to take me over to introduce me to Murray Weidenbaum, who was at the event.  I regret that out of some temporary shyness, I declined the offer.  Anyway, on the way back from St. Louis, the discussion was so intense and interesting that I neglected to attend to the gasoline indicator, and we ran out of gas in some small town in Illinois.  I managed to get us to the town gas station, but it was closed because the owner, and all employees, were attending some local social function.  We ended up having to stay overnight in this God-forsaken berg.  Joe was very mad at me.)

(Note three:  the blog entry above was written on 6/11/07.)

 




July 21, 2007

Invention as a Form of Criticism

 

The toughest part of inventing isn't solving problems. It's figuring out which problems are worth the effort.

"A few years ago, an inventor patented a device that caused an electric motor to rock a chair," wrote Raymond F. Yates in 1942. "Now imagine, if you will, the sad spectacle of anybody too lazy to rock his own chair! No wonder he could not make money. If he had expended the same effort on something that was actually needed, he might be wealthy today instead of being sadder but wiser."

Mr. Yates, a self-taught engineer, inventor and technical writer, tried to nudge other inventors in the right direction with his book, "2100 Needed Inventions." Published by Wilfred Funk Inc., Mr. Yates's book was a list of ways people could alleviate certain nuisances and defects of life and get rich for their trouble.

. . .

"Invention is really a systematic form of criticism," Mr. Yates wrote, and people tend to criticize the things that annoy them in their daily lives. Mr. Yates, for example, seems to have found most commonplace devices excessively noisy.

 

For the full story, see: 

CYNTHIA CROSSEN.  "DEJA VU; An Inventor in 1940s Gave Tips on Going From Smart to Rich."  The Wall Street Journal  (Mon., May 21, 2007):  B1.  

 




January 11, 2007

Intellectual Property Rights in Toilet


 

CHICAGO (AP) — The gun­man who fatally shot three peo­ple in a law firm’s high-rise office before he was killed by police felt cheated over an invention, au­thorities said Saturday.

  Joe Jackson forced a security guard at gunpoint to take him up to the 38th floor offices of Wood, Phillips, Katz, Clark & Mortimer, which specialized in intellectual property and patents.  He carried the revolver, a knife and a ham­mer in a large manila envelope and chained the office doors be­hind him, police said.

  Jackson, 59, told witnesses be­fore he was shot that he had been cheated over a toilet he had in­vented for use in trucks, Police Superintendent Phil Cline said.

 

For the full story, see:

"Shooter felt cheated over toilet, police say."  Omaha World-Herald  (Sun., 12/10/2006):   4A.

 




October 12, 2006

Sulfa: First Antibiotic Was Pursued for Profit


  Source of the book image:  http://ec1.images-amazon.com/images/P/1400082137.01._SS500_SCLZZZZZZZ_V52133117_.jpg

 


Economists have debated whether patents mainly provide incentives, or obstacles, to innovation.  In the story of the development of sulfa, the first powerful antibiotic, the desire for profit, through patents, was one motive that drove an important part of the development process; this, even though, in the end, sulfa turned out not to be patentable:


(p. P9) Mr. Hager follows a group of doctors into postwar German industry -- specifically into the dye conglomerate IG Farben.  These men, having witnessed horrible deaths by infection on the battlefield, picked up on Ehrlich's hypothesis by trying to synthesize a dye that specifically stained and killed bacteria.  Led by the physician-scientist Gerhard Domagk, they brought German know-how, regimentation and industry to the enterprise.

Year after year the team infected mice with streptococci, the bacteria responsible for so many deadly infections in humans.  The researchers then treated the mice with various dyes but had to watch as thousands upon thousands of them died despite such treatment.  Nothing seemed to work.  The 1920s turned into the '30s, and still Domagk and his team held to Ehrlich's idea.  There was simply no better idea around.

Then one of the old hands at IG Farben mentioned that he could get dyes to stick to wool and to fade less by attaching molecular side-chains containing sulfur to them.  Maybe what worked for wool would work for bacteria by making the dye adhere to the bacteria long enough to kill it.

. . .

The IG Farben conglomerate expected huge profits from Prontosil.  But then French scientists at the Pasteur Institute in Paris dashed these dreams.  The German scientists -- all of them Ehrlich disciples -- thought that the power to cure infection rested in the dye, with the sulfa side-chain merely holding the killer dye to the bacteria.  The scientists at the Pasteur Institute, though, showed that the sulfa side-chain alone worked against infection just as well as the Prontosil compound.  In fact, the dye fraction of the compound was useless.  You could have Ehrlich's magic bullet without Ehrlich's big idea!  This bombshell rendered the German patents worthless.  The life-saver "drug" turned out to be a simple, unpatentable chemical available in bulk everywhere.

 

For the full review, see: 

PAUL MCHUGH.  "BOOKS; Medicine's First Miracle Drug."  The Wall Street Journal  (Sat., September 30, 2006):  P9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

 

The reference for the book is: 

Thomas Hager.  The Demon Under The Microscope.  Harmony, 340 pages, $24.95






November 19, 2005

Some Evidence Patents Matter


Apparently the evidence is mixed on the importance of patents as an incentive to innovation, though it always seemed intuitive to me that patents should matter. Petra Moser has just published research from his dissertation, that seems to add evidence on the side of patents mattering:

How Do Patent Laws Influence Innovation? Evidence from Nineteenth-Century World's Fairs

Petra Moser

Abstract: Studies of innovation have focused on the effects of patent laws on the number of innovations, but have ignored effects on the direction of technological change. This paper introduces a new dataset of close to fifteen thousand innovations at the Crystal Palace World's Fair in 1851 and at the Centennial Exhibition in 1876 to examine the effects of patent laws on the direction of innovation. The paper tests the following argument: if innovative activity is motivated by expected profits, and if the effectiveness of patent protection varies across industries, then innovation in countries without patent laws should focus on industries where alternative mechanisms to protect intellectual property are effective. Analyses of exhibition data for 12 countries in 1851 and 10 countries in 1876 indicate that inventors in countries without patent laws focused on a small set of industries where patents were less important, while innovation in countries with patent laws appears to be much more diversified. These findings suggest that patents help to determine the direction of technical change and that the adoption of patent laws in countries without such laws may alter existing patterns of comparative advantage across countries. (JEL D2, K11, L51, N0, O14)



Source:

Moser, Petra. "How Do Patent Laws Influence Innovation? Evidence from Nineteenth-Century World Fairs." The American Economic Review 95, no. 4 (2005): 1214-1236.




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