The Return Of Inventors

from the forget-that-innovation-crap dept

We all know the stories of the big name inventors from a century ago: Thomas Edisons, Alexander Graham Bell and the Wright Brothers (among, many many others) who all came up with unique new products. Over the last century, though, the role of the inventor has faded. Corporate research began to take over, and as such, the incentives skewed more towards focusing on innovation, rather than pure research and invention. However, now, a few companies are looking to swing the pendulum back the other way and bring back the age of the inventor. While the article makes it out to be something new, I’m not so sure that’s accurate. A number of companies have tried to build themselves up around performing basic research, and many have struggled when that research failed to produce anything that could eventually be commercialized. Still, there’s nothing wrong with encouraging invention – it just remains to be seen if it’s really possible to create companies that are only focused on invention creation.

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Comments on “The Return Of Inventors”

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Doug says:

Use it or lose it?

it just remains to be seen if it’s really possible to create companies that are only focused on invention creation.

It seems kind of unlikely that they could make a profit unless they patent their inventions. Where is their revenue stream?

But if they patented their inventions, then Techdirt would tear them apart with comments like, “this tiny company, which does nothing with their patents other than threaten other companies if they don’t pay them (in some places, this is known as extortion), shouldn’t have such patents in the first place.”

The company could be berated as being “another case of a patent shop, that does nothing productive for society, sits around and waits for other companies to come up with the same perfectly obvious idea that they hold a patent on, and then sue sue sue.”

Or, if they get really successful, then they can be described as one of the “big companies who patent thousands of ideas every year, and then threaten any small company that might compete with them to “license our patents or else.””

They’d also have competition from people reading their patents and then claiming to have come up with the idea themselves, since Techdirt believes “If someone else comes up with the idea independently… then it’s tough to see how it makes sense to force them to pay to license something that they came up with themselves.”

My point is that Techdirt has regularly railed against patentholders who only license their patents and do not use the patents themselves. This is, IMHO, terribly unfair to the small inventors out there who have neither the interest nor the resources to put their own patents into production. They must rely on selling and/or licensing their patents, and they must be prepared to defend their patents when somebody tries to rip them off. Sometimes this means that they have to bring a lawsuit based on a patent that few people were aware existed. That doesn’t automatically make the patent bogus.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Use it or lose it?

You spent a lot of time coming up with those links, but perhaps you should read through them more carefully. In most of those cases, the patents do involve obvious ideas that should not be patentable, and are not situations where any real innovation occurred. Do you honestly believe that if two companies (or individuals) independently come up with the same idea, one should have to pay the other one?

I support efforts to promote real innovation or inventions – and if the patent system did that, I’d be all for it. However, the details behind all of those cases show that it wasn’t innovation that was being promoted – but a slowing down of innovation by using patents for extortion.

Can you really not distinguish between bogus patents and the companies that exploit them from real innovation?

Besides, there are other business models besides licensing intellectual property. Expertise in a new area can lead to future services that companies are willing to pay for. If someone invented widget A that you need for your next big product, wouldn’t you be interested in hiring him to make sure the project goes well and you can advance the work in a necessary direction?

Doug says:

Re: Re: Use it or lose it?

Hmm, maybe I didn’t make my point clear. I’m all for getting rid of bogus patents. But those articles didn’t just harp on the patents. They took pot-shots at the patent-holders, claiming that anyone who isn’t actually using a patent (or is using it but has not been commercially successful) “shouldn’t have such patents in the first place.”

This has been a recurring theme in Techdirt. I ask your question back to you: “Can you really not distinguish between bogus patents and the companies that exploit them from real innovation?”

Please do attack the patent if it is bogus. There sure are enough bogus patents out there, especially in software patents and process patents.

But it is very unfair to claim that any patent is automatically bogus if the patent-holder has not built a successful company or product around it, and even more unfair to then attack the patent-holder as being a parasite for defending the patent against predators.

As for independent creation, it’s rather the point of a patent that it creates the presumption that future similar devices are not created independently, but are based on the published patent. How would you change the patent law so that we could distinguish independent discovery from mere copying?

The patent system is a mess, but don’t blame the patent-holders for trying to work within the system.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Use it or lose it?

Ok, I see your point, but let me clarify mine as own. Since you’re so focused on the patent holders, do you think it’s fair that there are so many patent houses that do nothing but buy up bogus patents – and purposely sit on them until someone else creates a successful business out of them?

The fact that that’s what’s happening is a perfect example of why the patent system is screwed up. I have nothing against patent holders. I do have problems with companies that are buying up patents simply for the purpose of legalized extortion. That’s the point.

Of all the millions of patent holders out there, the only ones I pick on are these patent shops who are in it not to promote innovation (the purpose of the patent system) but to hold companies that ARE innovating hostage. To me, they deserve to be blamed because they’re part of the reason the system is a mess.

xman says:


Your list of inventors is somewhat arguable :

Yes, Edison did invent a lot of stuff, but several of things he is famous for inventing, he didn’t – the incandescent lightbulb for one – and many of his inventions were “inspired” by his assitants. There is a lot of hype surrounding Edison, the reality is not as inspiring.

Bell didn’t invent the telephone – see recent case in US courts.

And what did the Wright brothers invent? Certainly not powered flight! They were (possibly) the first people to fly under power successfully, but that was more to do with application of materials rather than invention – they used bicycle technology because that was what they knew.

Bladesman says:

Re: Huh?

and how about modern inventors like John Dyson, Sir Tim Berners Lee, Vint Cerf, Trevor Baylis, Sir Frank Whittle, Sir Christopher Cockerill, Robert Moog, Linus Torvalds?

I bet if you asked anyone between the age of 18 and 80 in the UK what each of those people invented they would get at least five right. Vint Cerf might be a bit of a problem 🙂

xman says:

Re: Re: Huh?

Linus Torvalds? He didn’t invent anything – Linux is a pretty, straight derivative of the Minix system. He is a classic case of overhyping.

I’m not sure that Tim Berners-Lee would see himself in this list either – apart from being entirely unassuming and an all-round nice person, what he did was to make a subset of SGML, in many ways he didn’t even innovate that much. It took off more by accident than anything else.

The others are much more in the classic inventor mould.

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