Available Now! (click cover)

America's Counter-Revolution
The Constitution Revisited

From the back cover:

This book challenges the assumption that the Constitution was a landmark in the struggle for liberty. Instead, Sheldon Richman argues, it was the product of a counter-revolution, a setback for the radicalism represented by America’s break with the British empire. Drawing on careful, credible historical scholarship and contemporary political analysis, Richman suggests that this counter-revolution was the work of conservatives who sought a nation of “power, consequence, and grandeur.” America’s Counter-Revolution makes a persuasive case that the Constitution was a victory not for liberty but for the agendas and interests of a militaristic, aristocratic, privilege-seeking ruling class.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Patents and Other Privileges

The New York Times had an enlightening story yesterday on the background to the BlackBerry patent miscarriage of justice. It turns out that a computer pioneer and entrepreneur who hates the idea of patents wrote about wireless e-mail a decade before the idea was patented, and this fact was overlooked or withheld when Thomas Campana patented the idea and when Campana's patent-holding company, NTP, sued Research in Motion (BlackBerry's maker) for patent infringement. In fact, NTP's lawyers consulted with Geoff Goodfellow in order to "neutralize" him in their suit against R.I.M. Goodfellow says he made it clear to the lawyers that he had published his idea about wireless e-mail long before any patents were issued, but the lawyers now play innocent. Goodfellow remembers one of the lawyers introducing him to someone by saying, "Geoff's the inventor of wireless e-mail." The lawyer disputes this. But according to the Times: "At one meeting in Washington, when Mr. Goodfellow described his technology at a white board in a conference room, [NTP lawyer] Mr. Wallace insisted that the other lawyers not take handwritten notes for fear of leaving a paper trail, Mr. Goodfellow says."

All this is revealing because it casts doubt on whether Campana, who died a few years ago, ever should have gotten his patents even under existing law. It used to be harder to patent ideas that were "in the air." Campana's patents have been premilinarily invalidated by the U.S. Patent Office. Nevertheless, R.I.M entered into a $612.5 million settlement with NTP rather than risk being closed down by a judge's injunction.

The story demonstrates the problems with patents per se. Given the nature of ideas, when the state gets into the business of granting property rights in them, there is bound to be trouble. The story also shows that within the hardcore computer community there is an aversion to patents. Goodfellow says, "You don't patent the obvious. The way you compete is to build something that is faster, better, cheaper. You don't lock your ideas up in a patent and rest on your laurels."

Hat tip: William Stepp.

4 comments:

Kevin Carson said...

That last Goodfellow quote is brilliant. It describes, all to accurately, the real effect that patents have on innovation. When you've got a legal deadlock on the latest technology, there's a lot less incentive to innovate for the sake of staying competitive. And when you exchange patents with a "competitor," like Westinghouse and GE did, the cartel reduces the pressure to innovate even further.

Sheldon Richman said...

Goodfellow's words are reflected in the open-source movement in the software world.

Anonymous said...

The whole history of patents in the United State of America - until the advent of "intellectual property" - allowed for transparency; inventors, etc, were protected from infringement on specific inventions, ie, physical "things" while being required to make available to the "public" the design and ideas which went into the development of the "invention". It was through this process of transparency that other inventors were able to develop better, faster - and, yes, even, cheaper - alternatives. Reverse engineering is the way the industrial revolution revolutionized.

Sheldon Richman said...

But why should an inventor have such protection? I disagree with your interpretation of patent history. From the time of the industrial "revolution" patent holders used their government-granted monopolies to stop competitors who wished to improve on their inventions. Innovation was stifled, not encouraged. See the history of the steam engine.