Once Again: The Great Inventors Often Were Neither Great, Nor Inventors

from the revisiting-history dept

For many years, we've tried to argue how important it is to understand the difference between innovation and invention. While it may seem like a minor point of semantics, it actually plays quite heavily into the debate over the patent system. Invention is the process of coming up with something new. Innovation is taking that something new and successfully bringing it to market in a way people want. A quote I've heard a few times sums it up thusly: "Invention is turning money into ideas. Innovation is turning ideas into money." If you look at the true history of major breakthroughs, you'll quickly learn that invention is fairly meaningless -- and the important point is the innovation. In fact, if you look at all the "great inventors" championed by American history, you'll quickly realize that most weren't great inventors at all, but rather innovators, who later (often through questionable means) took credit as the inventors they never were. Even though those who actually are familiar with the history of these products know this already, it's still nice to see these false stories of invention getting more exposure.

Last year, there was a book showing how Thomas Edison wasn't the great inventor he claimed to be. Now, there's a new book suggesting not only was Alexander Graham Bell not the great inventor many hold him up to be, but the famous story of him rushing to the patent office to beat Elisha Gray's patent filing by mere hours may hide the fact that Bell actually cheated the system with the help of a corrupt patent examiner, who shared Gray's filing with Bell and then helped make it appear that Bell's filing came first. While this should raise even more questions about why either man was able to get a patent on an idea that was getting plenty of attention from many sources, and thus should have been considered obvious, it also adds to the list of "great inventors" who really did very little inventing.

The reason this is so important is that a patent system really only makes sense if it's the invention part that's important and that invention is basically the pinnacle of advancement in the space. Instead, if it's innovation that's more important, and innovation is an ongoing process that is sped along by competition, then there is little reason to have a patent system at all. Those who hold up Edison, Bell, the Wright Brothers and others as examples of why the patent system should exist are pointing to the wrong role models. The more detailed you look at their records you realize that both men cheated -- and used the patent system not to help protect "inventions," but to get monopolies that kept out real competition, slowed down true innovation and built up unfair monopolies they didn't deserve.

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  1. identicon
    David, 27 Dec 2007 @ 1:39pm

    Re: Re: History is rife with those who have taken

    Sorry, I apologize if I mistook your meaning.

    While this particular post did not discuss the relative importance of invention vs. innovation, the following post that is linked within this one does seem to make such an assertion:

    Innovation Is More Important Than Invention

    "So, the real question then, is whether or not our intellectual property system should be encouraging invention or innovation? I'd vote for innovation, as that's what drives the economy, and that would suggest we need fewer lawyers involved with the patent system, and perhaps more innovators. The following point is also important: "the technical excellence of an invention matters far less than the economic willingness of the customer or client to explore it." In other words, any system designed to encourage innovation needs to encourage actually making use of the innovation - and not, for example, sitting on a patent and doing nothing with it, while waiting for others to innovate and then hitting them with a patent infringement lawsuit."

    While much of that post contains quotation, I believe the majority of the statements above were original to that post. The argument seems to be one sided in that because innovation directly drives the economy, it outweighs invention. But it does not account for the fact that invention drives innovation; that is without all sorts of interference from IP laws and lawyers.

    I am simply referring to relative the importance and interrelation of both invention and innovation, as defined here.

    I also am not suggesting that the lack of IP laws would stifle creation. I do not believe that my quoted statement implies that at all, it only stresses the interdependence. Interpreting the statement as suggested is an extrapolation based on an incorrect association to other sections of my post.

    As to balance, what I referred to here is not related to the particular balance argument commonly used for patents and other IP. I do refer to balance in common usage only as a moderate point of view that attempts to consider all things.

    I do know enough about economics to know that government interference really only leads to market distortion in one form or another, be it taxation, government subsidies, tariffs, welfare, or IP.

    The patent office is full of innovation masquerading as invention; loads of patens based on obvious extensions of existing ideas, and the patents are often awarded despite this.

    The lawyers don't really care which is which as long as it is billable.

    We need fewer lawyers involved who stifle creativity and make their money by encouraging legal confrontation over fictitious property.

    But the whole Bell/Grey debate is a debate based on the concept of IP theft. I have not personally come to a definitive conclusion yet as to whether there should be any sort of IP or not, but I clearly see the abuse that occurs and I definetly lean to substantial reduction of the current restrictions.

    The main point was really that the original, limited intent of IP, as instituted when this country was young, was better than what it has become with people that have used weaknesses in the IP system and government to exacerbate the market distortion to their own ends.

    I hope this clears up some of my meaning as I find I typically agree with far more of what you say than I disagree with.

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