Bringing Transparency Back To The Patent System With 'Innovation Cartography'

from the spreading-the-knowledge dept

As Techdirt has noted many times, the patent system is broken, and in various ways. One major problem is the way it inhibits innovation, rather than promoting it, as its supporters usually claim. Here's why:

The patent system was created to advance societal benefit by encouraging clearly defined public disclosure of inventions, in exchange for a strictly limited monopoly. The intent is that the invention may be used wherever and whenever the patent monopoly is not in force.

The trouble is that unless information is readily available about whose patents are in force over what technology where, the system doesn't work well. People may unwittingly infringe patents they don't know about, avoid areas of innovation in which they are entitled to be creative, or make poor investments based on incomplete information about which rights are granted and who holds these rights.
That's taken from a page on the site of a new tool called the "Lens". It's the brainchild of Richard Jefferson, probably best known for setting up Cambia, which describes itself as "an independent non-profit institute creating new technologies, tools and paradigms to promote change and enable innovation," and the open-source biology project BiOS. Here's what the Lens is for:
to create transparency in the patent system, and to serve the public worldwide as a platform to explore, understand and improve its impact on society. The Lens informatics tools can assist the user to determine the boundaries of intellectual property constraints on deliverable innovations, and usable building blocks for future innovations.
As pointed out to us by @gnat, there's an excellent profile of Jefferson in Grist, which explains the larger goal of his new project as follows:
he's trying to radically transform the entire system of innovation to make it more inclusive and local: He wants a system that empowers farmers in Africa to invent their own solutions, rather than looking to multinational corporations for fixes.
The problem is that patents do not promote innovation in those contexts:
the people who need new solutions most, like farmers in developing countries, are isolated in a system that discourages ground-level innovation. Instead, we have a small group of companies in rich countries, with a stranglehold on patents, designing all the solutions to fit their own business models. This system works primarily to bring in money for these companies, to maintain their privilege, and to exclude competition.
More specifically, the problem is that:
the patent system has grown so complex that only a few experts understand it. It's impossible for normal people to navigate the patent thickets to discover the treasures there, or see the dangers. And these days everything from a cellphone to a seed requires dozens of separate patents for the component parts. The solution, he said, is mapping it out: what he calls "innovation cartography."
The rest of the Grist article explores Jefferson's ideas further, and is well-worth reading. It includes a wonderful historical parallel from the 16th century -- involving a different kind of map:
the Iberian peninsula controlled all the information needed to send merchant ships to Asia (and, to a large extent, the New World as well). The Iberians had invested heavily in research and development, sending out De Gama, Magellan, Dias, Columbus, all those explorers to map the world. And because they were the only Europeans with reliable maps of the East Indies -- these maps were state secrets -- the Iberians had a monopoly.
The result was great wealth and power for those that controlled the maps, but also stagnation within their industries, because they had no need to innovate -- the money kept rolling in anyway. The parallels with the present state of the patent system, where large returns are possible without the need to innovate further, are clear.

But back in the 16th century, something happened:

Jan Huyghen van Linschoten was working as a secretary for the Portuguese archbishop in Goa, India. In that capacity, he traveled all over the world. Somewhere along the way, he got his hands on the Portuguese maps, and he copied them.
He not only copied them, he made them freely available, with dramatic effects on the entire world:
Linschoten published the maps in 1596. The British East India Company started in 1600; the Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602. The Dutch East India Company also represented an innovation in financing: It was the first joint stock company, and its formation gave rise to trade in options and derivatives. Once the maps were available and the Iberian monopoly was broken, new ideas flowered, and new investment flowed.

Now we have a similar situation, Jefferson said. There is a tremendous opportunity -- not in mapping Asia and the Americas, but in mapping the patent system and all of its related knowledge.
This is how Jefferson thinks the Lens will be used to unleash a new wave of investment and innovation, just as Linschoten's maps did:
anyone can look up patents and grab recipes for creating technologies. This is especially true of the people who need innovation most, because patents don't apply in most developing countries. Patents can only stop use of an invention in the country in which they're granted. An enterprising Ugandan company could look up the instructions for Monsanto's seeds in the patent literature, and build them tomorrow, without breaking the law, Jefferson said. The innovators and entrepreneurs are out there, he said -- they just need the maps to show investors that the technology exists and their plans are legal and feasible.
It's a radical approach: using the patent system to provide both the raw ideas that might help developing countries, as well as key information about where that can be done without running into legal problems. In other words, it's all about putting the missing transparency back into patents.

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Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Corwin, Dec 10th, 2013 @ 12:49am

    Wasted effort

    Nobody even tries to compy with patent monopolies. There's three patents on every idea anyway, so every innovator is strictly counting on herd immunity until google buys them.

    The real solution to the patent mess is to abolish patents. End of story.

     

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  2.  
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    Not an Electronic Rodent (profile), Dec 10th, 2013 @ 1:20am

    A nice dream...

    An enterprising Ugandan company could look up the instructions for Monsanto's seeds in the patent literature, and build them tomorrow, without breaking the law, Jefferson said.
    Anyone taking bets as to how long after this happens it will be before Monsanto "lobbies" the US government and it mysteriously "agrees" (read - bullies) another trade treaty with the Ugandan's that happens to make this illegal?

     

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  3.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 10th, 2013 @ 2:41am

    Please help

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
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    Peter Wakefield Sault, Dec 10th, 2013 @ 2:43am

    Fabricated Histories

    The Portugese were not the originators of maps of the world. They merely made use of more ancient maps as the basis for their explorations. I cannot repeat the whole story here but anyone interested should read 'Maps of The Ancient Sea Kings' by Charles Hapgood.

    Fabricated histories are all the rage these days.

     

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  5.  
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    Not an Electronic Rodent (profile), Dec 10th, 2013 @ 3:57am

    Re: Fabricated Histories

    The Portugese were not the originators of maps of the world.
    Well possibly not, I'll take your word for it. But the point is not the origin, it's the monopoly that they had over navigation and the changes that happened when the monopoly was broken. Did that bit not happen either?

    Actually, on thinking about it, if you're right then it sort of works as a metaphor for copyright too with big incumbent players locking up previously public domain content...

     

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  6.  
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    Peter Wakefield Sault, Dec 10th, 2013 @ 5:59am

    Re: Re: Fabricated Histories

    "if you're right then it sort of works as a metaphor for copyright"

    The Portugese were practicing proprietory secrecy, which nowadays is effectively precluded by the regulation of products for public consumption and further by deep espionage by the NSA etc..

    It demonstrates the commercial value of secret intelligence.

    I don't think the problem is copyright. I think the problem is giant American corporations.

     

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  7. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
    identicon
    staff, Dec 10th, 2013 @ 6:47am

    another biased article

    'The trouble is that unless information is readily available'

    All issued patents are published by the USPTO in its Gazette. Further, through its web site anyone can access and search its database of issued patents. There is no excuse for not knowing what has issued. It's called business intelligence. If they don't know their markets and industry, they are to blame. If an infringer is ignorant of developments in their field, it's their fault. In some cases inventors will contact potential jv allies to help fund or develop emerging technologies. It's called business intelligence. Their excuses of not knowing are just that.


    Masnick and his monkeys have an unreported conflict of interest-
    https://www.insightcommunity.com/cases.php?n=10&pg=1

    They sell blog filler and "insights" to major corporations including MS, HP, IBM etc. who just happen to be some of the world’s most frequent patent suit defendants. Obviously, he has failed to report his conflicts as any reputable reporter would. But then Masnick and his monkeys are not reporters. They are hacks representing themselves as legitimate journalists receiving funding from huge corporate infringers. They cannot be trusted and have no credibility. All they know about patents is they don’t have any.

    For the truth, please see http://www.truereform.piausa.org/
    https://www.facebook.com/pi.ausa.5
    http://piausa.wordpress.com/
    http://www.hoover.org/publications/defining-ideas/article/142741
    http://cpip.gmu.edu/2013/03/15/the-s hield-act-when-bad-economic-studies-make-bad-laws/

     

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  8. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
    identicon
    out_of_the_blue, Dec 10th, 2013 @ 7:09am

    And TOO, publishing maps led to massive slavery and exploitation.

    "Linschoten published the maps in 1596. The British East India Company started in 1600; the Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602." -- Two of the most notoriously savage exploiters of natives in the spreading empires. The number of people enslaved and murdered by those corporations is surely in the millions, but of course uncounted.

    So at best, bad example.

    And again, the only practicable solution to the patent mess is to return to requiring working physical models (as ended in 1870s when emerging corporations hit on the idea of monopolizing more generally, not just the specific instantion). Automatically rules out software, drugs, broad areas like patenting genes, and incremental tweaks claimed as new.

    Economics is the non-science of telling fantasies to flatter plutocrats by omitting the real effects on laborers. It's an easy degree path for the lazy but well-off, requiring skill only at unctuous re-writing.

    03:08:37[d-65-1]

     

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  9.  
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    Andrew F (profile), Dec 10th, 2013 @ 7:12am

    "People may unwittingly infringe patents they don't know about"

    An independent invention defense (or something similar) would solve that.

    The problem with Lens (or rather, the problem Lens doesn't solve) is that the cost for making patents accessible and useful lies with the public, rather than the patent holders.

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 10th, 2013 @ 7:37am

    Now we know why those Investor State Relation Clauses in the Treaties are so important...

    With tools like this becoming available, Monsanto wants to make sure they can sue Uganda for 100 times their Gross National Product when some farmers create and use their "magic beans"... I mean "Special Seeds"...

     

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  11.  
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    Not an Electronic Rodent (profile), Dec 10th, 2013 @ 7:38am

    Re: Re: Re: Fabricated Histories

    I don't think the problem is copyright. I think the problem is giant American corporations.
    I don't think those 2 problems are mutually exclusive...
    It demonstrates the commercial value of secret intelligence.
    Indeed, I don't think there's ever been any doubt as to the commercial value of a monopoly however obtained for the holder of the monopoly. (Theoretically)Democratic governments, however, are supposed to encourage practices that are good for society as a whole and, while I make no claims to be an economist of any type, it seems clear that monopolies rarely, if ever, do well in that sphere.

     

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  12.  
    identicon
    Cpt Feathersword, Dec 10th, 2013 @ 8:37am

    Hey Uganda!

    How come you're still a third world country? Make money fast using Monsanto secrets hidden in plain sight on the Internet! The patent website is a gold mine, but you'll need this inexpensive treasure map to find it!

    Next thing you know, Uganda is a booming economic powerhouse!

    Seriously, only lawyers and historians find valuable information in patent filings. The usefulness of patent disclosures for actually making anything is unproven.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Dec 10th, 2013 @ 9:42am

    Re: another biased article

    All issued patents are published by the USPTO in its Gazette. Further, through its web site anyone can access and search its database of issued patents. There is no excuse for not knowing what has issued


    Patents are written to reveal as little actual information as possible, but that aside...

    In practice, at least in some fields, it is literally impossible to know what patents your invention might infringe. You can search all day long, but you will still end up getting sued by someone with some overly broad patent, or someone stretching their patent to cover your particular product in an attempt to steal from you.

    It has nothing to do with knowing your field or market. It has everything to do with people who use the patent system deceptively as a weapon.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
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    Peter Wakefield Sault, Dec 10th, 2013 @ 2:31pm

    Re: And TOO, publishing maps led to massive slavery and exploitation.

    "The only practicable solution to the patent mess is to return to requiring working physical models"

    Agreed. I once tried to create a working algorithm from the LMZ compression patent and discovered only that it was (and presumably still is) a fraud. Whatever technique is employed in the actual implementations of LMZ, it is not described by the patent.

     

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  15.  
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    G Thompson (profile), Dec 10th, 2013 @ 9:44pm

    Though this whole LENS idea is great, it only works when one assumes that the information within each individual patent on how to replicate the innovation/technology/method actually true and correct.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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