Posted by: Dirk | June 30, 2008

Patents and innovation

From the biography of Henry Ford (no, this is not about the efficient wages he supposedly introduced):

Ford, Henry. (1863-1947). Born, Wayne County, Michigan. American Industrialist famous for his work in mass production. Founded the Ford Motor Company in 1903. Ford challenged the powerful Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers, which held that all makers of gasoline powered automobiles needed to be licensed (and therefore owed portions of their profits) by the ALAM. Ford fought a six year court battle that finally overturned the validity of the famous “Seldon Patent” His victory changed the auto industry and made him a popular David (vs. Goliath) figure. Ford’s Model T, which began production in 1908 and ended in 1927, was a significant catalyst for change in American industry and American culture.

This topic comes up in IT a lot. I remember that Research in Motion (makers of BlackBerry) had to pay more than US-$ 600 million to a company which hold a patent on some of the technology RIM was using. Today, the WSJ reports that:

Several tech-industry heavyweights are banding together to defend themselves against patent-infringement lawsuits. Their plan: to buy up key intellectual property before it falls into the hands of parties that could use it against them, say people familiar with the matter.

Verizon Communications Inc., Google Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., Telefon AB L.M. Ericsson and Hewlett-Packard Co. are among the companies that have joined a group calling itself the Allied Security Trust, these people say.

I wonder whether everybody with an interest in doing good business would be better off by having no software patents at all. One could be tempted to think that writing a program is like writing a text. That way, free speech would imply that one could write into the code whatever he or she wants to. Not releasing code, like done by Microsoft, would still be OK. But firms should not be able to get patents for, well, a laptop with a keyboard and other things that look obvious, like the patent Henry Ford upturned (who, by the way, went on to introduce the affordable car to consumers nationwide).

UPDATE 18/08/2008: You think it was hard to build a car? Continue reading here (New Yorker) and see how difficult it was to build a plane in the early 20th century. A small excerpt: In the second decade of the twentieth century, it was almost impossible to build an airplane in the United States. That was the result of a chaotic legal battle among the dozens of companies—including one owned by Orville Wright—that held patents on the various components that made a plane go.


  1. I saw and wanted to mention a useful site:

    It provides free patent searching, free PDF downloading, allows annoting documents and sharing them, and free alerts for new documents.

    If you have a spot, a link to let your users know abou the site would be great.

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