Here's Another Inventor Who Willingly Gave Away His Greatest Idea In Order To Establish It As A Global Standard

from the true-generosity dept

Beyond the fact that you are using it to read these words, the Web has undeniably had a major impact on a large part of the world’s population. It’s certainly one of the greatest inventions of recent times, and as Techdirt has noted before, one of the reasons it has taken off in such an amazing way, and led to so many further innovations, is because Sir Tim Berners-Lee decided not to patent it.

Few would argue that the Musical Instrument Digital Interface — MIDI — is quite in the same league as the World Wide Web, and yet for musicians it has been hugely important in providing a common standard for playing and composing digital music. As an article in Fortune reminds us, one reason for that success is that like Berners-Lee, MIDI’s inventor, Dave Smith, also gave away his brilliant creation:

when Smith collaborated with a handful of Japanese companies — including Roland and Yamaha — to bring MIDI into the world 30 years ago, he skipped the licensing fees, instead offering up his idea for the world to steal. “We wanted to be sure we had 100% participation, so we decided not to charge any other companies that wanted to use it,” says Smith.

What’s noteworthy here — aside from the ridiculous use of the word “steal” — is that letting people use the MIDI standard for free was not some accident or oversight: well before the example of Berners-Lee, Smith understood that it was the best way to get his standard widely adopted. That’s not to say that he hasn’t occasionally hankered after the riches he might have received had he charged for a license, but in the end he recognizes the “obvious” rightness of the move:

Smith at times questions his decision to forgo licensing fees for MIDI, but ultimately comes back to the same conclusion. “It seemed like an obvious thing to do at the time,” he says, “and in hindsight, I think it was the right thing to do.” In the world of technology, that makes Smith a different kind of legendary.

Indeed: thanks to that far-sighted decision 30 years ago, he joins Berners-Lee as one of the true benefactors of humanity. Let’s hope that in the coming years there are many more with vision enough to join them.

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Comments on “Here's Another Inventor Who Willingly Gave Away His Greatest Idea In Order To Establish It As A Global Standard”

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tomxp411 (profile) says:

Re: A story with philanthropic bent

What can you say about someone that does something exactly right?

MIDI is one of those things that was the perfect tool at the right time… and no I don’t think we would have ended up with a single standard for connecting musical instruments together if someone hadn’t come up with a free (or very inexpensive) standard.

I think the lack of comments comes more from the fact that people simply don’t know what MIDI is and don’t fully appreciate how useful it is in the music studio. After all, nobody jumps up and sings the praises of USB, even though we all use USB devices every day.

anonymouse says:


Imagine of there was a system where he could have patented it for free use to everyone but anyone making money from selling mp3’s had to pay him 1 cent per mp3 sold or even 5 cents. He could be making a fortune and mp3 format would be free for personal use. Why did he not do this, and could he change the terms now or not?

I am not a patent fan and think there are too many crazy patents but for a system that is so good and has lasted for so long there could have been a little compensation for him, no?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Shame

Who said anything about MP3? This article was about MIDI. (Also, MP3 is encumbered out the wazoo, like pretty much everything else MPEG has ever touched. Though the remaining patents on it will be expiring Real Soon Now(tm).)

What you’re saying sounds an awful lot like what was done with H.264 when the HTML5 video codec debate first started to heat up. Something that is gratis only for personal use is not truly free at all.

anonymouse says:

Re: Re: Shame

So i meant to say what if he had a patent that allowed fair use but where device manufacturers and places like amazon or iTunes paid for using the format. As they don’t use midi these days i was using the mp3 format as an example. Sadly it is only the music industry that uses midi, for the consumer or general pc user if it is not in mp3 format it does not exist.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Shame

You think money is the only type of compensation that matters?

I was watching bushcraft videos and this one guy said this one thing that will be with me until the day I die.

Quote:”Knowledge is free, weights nothing and can save your life”

He said that after forgetting to bring things, instead of getting all grumpy he relied on his ability to produce the same outcomes no matter what other pre-made tools he had.

Holders of knowledge are masters of their lifes, so I am sure that he got everything he needed.

Also there is an area where there is no need for IP law and is the ultimate goal of a society based on the proxy called money to function. Services.

The oldest professions in the world, no I am not talking about the nice ladies on the corner, are all services from what I can tell.

Carpenters, handyman, weavers, accountants, we all have basic needs and we can’t do it all by ourselves is exhausting, there will always be a need for the services of others.

I can build a chair or a sofa, but I buy those, I made basketball nets for the hoops out of grass so children could play, but I bought plastic cordage to make a new one, more colorful.

What do you think he didn’t got in life that he should have got?

If he is happy I am happy although music is not my thing, but I do enjoy building instruments, and even find others who do too.

Black Sabbath – Ironman on home made bottle bass guitar

That guy started a frenzy on Youtube.

This one is more like what I do though.

Youtube: Ukulele project intro by Matthias Wandel.

So the only shame I see is we not celebrating this guy and his contribution to the pie.

Maybe we should make a MIDI day where we all collect some money and give it to him there is nothing stopping anybody from doing that so he can produce more things or take a vacation somewhere, now that would be brilliant, but even if people don’t want or don’t have money to give away he still can and should be remembered always and if he ever really need I am sure people will help.

Beech says:

Re: Shame

Yeah, the problem is then the 1-5 cent cost would inevitably be passed to the consumer, so it’s not really free for them. And the company selling the mp3s would look at how “expensive” they are as opposed to some other audio codec that they could use without some fee and would use the cheaper one instead. If someone had to give a portion of their profits every time they sold an mp3, mp3 never would have become a standard. Instead, we’d see everyone interested in selling audio on the internet coming up with their own proprietary, patented codecs.

Karl (profile) says:

Re: Shame

Imagine of there was a system where he could have patented it for free use to everyone but anyone making money from selling mp3’s had to pay him 1 cent per mp3 sold or even 5 cents. He could be making a fortune and mp3 format would be free for personal use.

First of all: MIDI has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with MP3. MIDI data is not audio data, but “control” data (e.g. “Turn on note X at pitch Y” or “Use synth patch X for this voice”). MIDI predated MP3 by about a decade.

Second of all: what you are suggesting did, in fact, happen with MP3’s. Officially, MP3 is patented by Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft. Originally, you only had to pay a license if you encoded MP3’s, and decoders didn’t require a license. Of course, once the MP3 format was fully established, they changed the license, and now every piece of software that uses the MP3 format is supposed to pay royalties to Fraunhofer (through Technicolor, its licensing arm).

So, in reality, what happened? Two things. First, most users simply pirated the MP3 codecs. Second, there was a huge push for more open formats. OGG came out of this push, and is completely open source.

LAME is an MP3 implementation, which is distributed only in source code (not binary) form, so can be downloaded without paying the patent royalties. You can only compile and run it in countries (like the U.S.) where Fraunhofer’s patent on MP3 technology has expired.

Of course, nobody really pays attention to that legal requirement, so lots of people are technically “pirating” the MP3 technology by either distributing the LAME binaries, or compiling and using the LAME source code.

In other words – what you described has only led to a huge mess.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Shame

Imagine of there was a system where he could have patented it for free use to everyone but anyone making money from selling mp3’s had to pay him 1 cent per mp3 sold or even 5 cents.


Also you’re wrong, if he had patented it, all those companies would have made their own standards and we would have dozens upon dozens of different formats that all refer to the general idea of the MIDI.

Just like what happens today with video and audio codecs and even programming languages. Closing up the system to ANYONE only means that someone is going to find a way around your system. Building a wall doesn’t open a pathway.

We likely wouldn’t have this article if he were to do that because MIDI as a standard likely would have died out in favor of dozens of other formats.

Jeffrey Nonken (profile) says:

Mmmm. It’s easy to look at MIDI’s popularity and ponder wistfully about how much licensing would have been worth. But the very reason he eschewed the patent is what would have made it considerably less popular, and possibly killed it off completely or at least left it in relative obscurity. As a result, minimal or no license fees to be had.

He is probably no poorer for having done this, and has made the world richer as a result. Definitely the right choice.

The Real Michael says:

Re: Re:

Bravo. MIDI would not have become the standard in electronic music production had it been placed under lock & key. I use it all the time and it is wonderful to work with. Others have attempted to supplant it yet none have succeeded. Two of MIDI’s core strengths are its universal application and economic file size (in comparison with stuff like mp3, wav, etc.).

It’s interesting to note that although MIDI is free, some have found roundabout ways of monetizing it, such as selling soundfonts (which are like sound libraries, often with real samples, which can be loaded into your sound card and/or virtual memory), MIDI interfaces to enhance music production and a host of other products and software.

Beech says:

“instead offering up his idea for the world to steal”

no doubt ridiculous use of the word steal! Like me putting a plate of cookies out at work with a sign that says “Free cookies!” then having the cops arrest anyone who takes one for larceny. If someone is “giving” something away for “free” than it is impossible to “steal” it.

New Mexico Mark says:

Re: Re:

But what if someone took your free cookies, copyrighted the recipe (I know you can’t copyright a recipe, but bear with me), then sued you for theft of intellectual property for using “their” recipe? That would seem like stealing to me.

I find it interesting that it is actually copyright and IP laws that make stealing an idea possible. Without that you simply have sharing or flattery by imitation. Wouldn’t freedom from (or greatly reduced) copyright and IP law make for a much nicer world? (With liberty and better cookies for all!)

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Employee Inventions

That is the normal rule for industrial employee inventions.
That is part of the rule written in a typical contract, however the true situation is typically much more complex.

Two scenarios exist:

1. The work is done as part of a project set up by the employer with pre-defined expectations in respect of patent rights. The will have been spelled out in advance – and the decision about whether to patent will have been made before the invention. If that had been the case then CERN would have patented it regardless of TBL’s opinion.

2. The work is an independent initiative by an employee whose contract gives some freedom to work on whatever he thinks will be useful. The decision to patent then belongs to the inventor (because only he is aware that something patentable exists). Typically in those cases, although the organisation would own the patent by default, they would usually make some agreement to pay royalties and/or give some control to the inventor.

I believe that the WWW fell under category 2. Hence, although TBL would not have owned the patent the decision would have been his and he would have benefitted from any royalties.

cassiel (user link) says:


I may be misremembering this, but I seem to recall that, while use of MIDI was free, the specification from the MIDI Manufacturers’ Association was under copyright and you had to pay to be a member before you could get a copy. (These days you can just download it.)

Many manufacturers used to treat the MIDI specification of their instruments as totally proprietary. (The American companies were much worse that the Japanese.)

madasahatter (profile) says:

MDID standard

He allowed others and potentially himself to make more money because there was a free standard to use. What is often forgotten with IP issues is that are often more ways to make money from the idea other than selling patent rights. If the underlying standard or technology is it lowers costs to enter the market for derivative product producers and it will be widespread leading to quick consumer acceptance. This, also, leads to a larger consumer market because the derivative devices/technology will more likely be compatible with each other. USB devices are very popular because the USB specification is a standard device interface. As consumer I can confidently buy a USB device and know it will work pending possible driver installation with my computer.

staff (user link) says:

another biased article

‘Tim Berners-Lee decided not to patent it’

His contribution to what the Internet has become is unknown at this time. It takes years or even decades to fully understand who contributed what. Whatever his contributions were and to what extent they were patentable, it is his right to forfeit them. He may have had no choice as at the time he worked for a government entity in Europe.

These are mere dissemblings by huge multinational thieves and their paid puppets -some in Congress, the White House and elsewhere in the federal government. They have already damaged the US patent system so that property rights are teetering on lawlessness. Simply put, their intent is to legalize theft -to twist and weaken the patent system so it can only be used by them and no one else. Then they can steal at will and destroy their small competitors AND WITH THEM THE JOBS THEY WOULD HAVE CREATED. Meanwhile, the huge multinationals ship more and more US jobs overseas.

Do you know how to make a Stradivarius violin? Neither does anyone else. Why? There was no protection for creations in his day so he like everyone else protected their creations by keeping them secret. Civilization has lost countless creations and discoveries over the ages for the same reason. Think we should get rid of patents? Think again…or just think.

Most important for many is what the patent system does for the US economy. Our founders: Jefferson, Franklin, Madison and others felt so strongly about the rights of inventors that they included inventors rights to their creations and discoveries in the Constitution. They understood the trade off. Inventors are given a limited monopoly and in turn society gets the benefits of their inventions (telephone, computer, airplane, automobile, lighting, etc) into perpetuity and the jobs the commercialization of those inventions bring. For 200 years the patent system has not only fueled the US economy, but the world?s. If we weaken the patent system we force inventors underground like Stradivarius and in turn weaken our economy and job creation. Worse yet, we destroy the American dream -the ability to prosper from our ingenuity for the benefit of our children and communities. Who knows who the next Alexander Graham Bell will be. It could be your son or daughter. It could be you. To kill or weaken the patent system is to kill their futures.

For the truth, please see

Karl (profile) says:

Re: another biased article

For anyone reading at home, PIA USA is the “Professional Inventors Alliance,” a pro-patent astroturf “organization” run by Ronald J. Riley. His WordPress site posts almost exactly the same text as above in response to every single article it discusses.

He is a total nutcase. No actual facts are ever given, he constantly slings ad hominem attacks, and he presents anyone who wants to reform the patent system (to any degree) as “huge multinational thieves and their paid puppets – some in Congress, the White House and elsewhere in the federal government.”

There’s a compendium of his nutty proclamations here:

Ironically, in 2008 Riley was sued by John Dozier, who is perhaps the only person on the planet to have even more extreme views on IP than Riley (but about copyrights, rather than patents).

The text of the complaint is an interesting read:

In 1990, Riley found himself unemployed. A community college dropout, he was soon living in a mobile home. And then he came up with an ingenious plan. Riley enjoyed tinkering, and so he decided to falsely portray himself as a renowned and successful inventor, even though he was neither. The Internet gave him an idea. If he could create a false identity, he could convince those not familiar with his background that he was an expert in entrepreneurial ventures and inventions. Then he could make money as a consultant and offer feigned ?expertise? to assist inventors and entrepreneurs in commercializing their ideas and creations. […]

Through this fraud, Ronald J. Riley has gone from an unemployed community college dropout living in a mobile home to an assumed identity of a credentialed investigative journalist, an associate of a Nobel Prize winner, the titular leader of seemingly prestigious inventor industry think tanks and powerful special interest groups, a Washington, D.C. powerbroker and friend of U.S. Senators and Congressmen, an award winning inventor revered by MIT, and a sought after speaker by the Harvard Law School. Riley has perpetrated one of the most successful business credential frauds ever committed upon the inventor and entrepreneur community.

Is any of this true? Beats me. But considering how Riley portrays himself on the Web, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

special-uninteresting (profile) says:

MIDI is a good example of the great things that can happen when we share knowledge freely. MIDI itself was a great idea but alone its just that, a sole lonely idea. What makes the MIDI standard great is its universal implementation facilitated by David Smith’s selfless vision and the importance of industry standards/compatibility.

Would MIDI be a successful universal standard without such initial boost given by the original inventor? Maybe not, possibly unlikely. Its only a control language and as such can be easily worked around. The likely crime of needless industry segregation would be committed and instead of a very usable universal music generation/control-language/playback-recording-sequencing-control-method we would have instead twenty different music control languages and only some popular (and expensive) and some usable (most likely open sourced).

Some things are just not reasonable to patent. A good example would be the WWW. (Wide World Web) Tim Berners-Lee should deserve the Economic Nobel Prize for his contributions to world peace and prosperity. The economic advantage and spread of knowledge is incalculable and runner up or next years ENP should be David Smith for his MIDI contributions to the spread of Art cultural growth through music. Honestly.

There should be more nationally recognized, significant monetary, awards for such valuable contributions to culture and society.

MP3 and MPEG are good examples of (bad examples. Hahah) the bastardization of technology. The outright prohibitive licensing have forces dozens of splinter and separate codecs/encode formats worldwide. (LAME, OGG, Vorbis, etc.) Such various obscure formats lends to compatibility problems that lead to loss of valuable data and media. (Think of the lost family holiday videos/music recorded on unsupported formats.)

A lot of good ideas are lost when licensing schemes wanting just a few cents each use quickly expand/grow greedily into fortune building forced fee monopoly empires (I remember some bar-code scamlike operation/patents using patent renewal-updating nonsense) charging hundreds of dollars for each program/license/use.

Am not totally against patents or copytight (what? Right? Wrong!) but each must be reigned in drastically (both in term length and scope) to preserve US growth through innovation and new technology developed by using older technology in new ways with new materials and such.

For the cultural explosion we all can taste and feel (can you?) in our bones it is copyright that must be castrated before any such cool type of social revolution can occur.

Capitalism is a powerful concept that I wholeheartedly endorse but that is contrasted by the very real need to prevent monopolies from taking advantage of it also. Both paten and copyright law are by definition monopolies and as such must be neutered at birth. Atm me thinkds that both should be limited to terms of 14 years. (less?) If more then only be some sort of creative commons type method.


I like the cookies analogy. Better MIDI cookies for all!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Misplaced attention

don’t try to confuse them, if they cannot understand the difference between an invention and a standard, or that all the technology and inventions were already in place, it was simply standardised, NOT invented..

But your average TD reader (and writer) has trouble with technical things.

Anonymous Coward says:

wow 30 years and ONE (and not very good) example, !!!! how long did you have to search to find this single and not that important example ??

So just 1 thing you can show case, in 30 YEARS !!!!!

it was also not an invention, it is a standard, to make it a standard you need people to adopt it.

it’s just an interface standard, like ‘centronics’ or TCP/IP or RS-232. For them to become an adopted standard, that is what is required.

It’s not an invention, all the technology for MIDI was already in place, he standardised it that is all.. and it was 30 years ago..

Anonymous Coward says:

What would the title of the patent for MIDI be

Patents are “A method to achieve a specific result”

such as “a method to catch and kill mice”.

MIDI is NOT A METHOD to achieve anything.

It is a STANDARD, a defined interface, but it is not an invention.

nothing had to be invented for MIDI to be created, just an agreement between manufacturers on a common (standard) interface.

Anonymous Coward says:

Musical Instrument Digital Interface


Pianola rolls, meets that criteria, it’s digital (hols or 1’s no hols for 0’s), It’s a musical instrument interface.

that was developed in the 1800’s.

and technologies relating to the pianola were patented, just as the technology relating to MIDI are also patented..

But not MIDI itself.

Anonymous Coward says:

MIDI was and is also basically a FLOP

or failure, it’s is seldom used, and is only ever really a feature on synths and keyboards, try finding a guitar or drums, or cello or flute, or any live performance or band that uses MIDI.. you wont find any.. It never really took off and has little functionality.

and yet for musicians it has been hugely important in providing a common standard for playing and composing digital music.

So NO.. it’s not really.. it is in fact that very important at all.

Anonymous Coward says:

Alessandro Volta

Why did you not use this as your example ??

we invented something, that (a generation later) because a very important thing.. THE BATTERY

he invented the Voltaic pile, (the battery), we wrote an article to the Royal Society and told everyone about it. He did not patent it..

At that time the battery had no practical application, but today there are quite a few application for batteries.. if he had of patented it, he would have made no money off it, as there were no applications for it.

MIDI by itself is nothing, you cannot create any sounds with a ‘midi’ you need other equipment and inventions for it to be functional. .

but MIDI by itself is as useful as a battery by itself you need them to make something else work.. something else that needs to be invented and sold.

again, you never go to a music shop and say “can I have one midi please”

also, the ‘internet’ is not an invention, it is a standard for communications between computers, communication between computers happened well before the internet. You also don’t go and say “can I buy one internet please”.

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