A Cautionary Tale of Technology Patents
Picture this, if you will:
The year is 1901, and you are working as a clerk in the patent office in Bern, Switzerland. A local firm submits a very odd patent application, one that you're certain you should reject, and you look around for your rulebook to find the exact paragraph that will justify your rejection. But once again, one of your coworkers has walked off with it—so you step over to the next desk to borrow another copy.
You reach over the plaque marked "Einstein" and grab what is obviously the rulebook. Albert won't mind if you borrow it; he's a nice enough chap, even though he wasn't quite bright enough to get that teaching job he'd wanted. Now if only he'd stop muttering about the "space-time continuum," he'd be even a better officemate.
After paging through the rulebook you've found—it looks very different somehow, but you don't look at the date of publication, why would you?—you find much that is oddly phrased and more than a little that makes no sense, but the rules are the rules.
Now you're stuck. The applicant not only included the usual text and diagrams, but he's proudly attached his trademarked name: "aTunes." He wants to patent the delivery of music via automobiles instead of horse-powered vehicles; you can't imagine why that's patentable, but this new rulebook is quite clear: No matter how obvious an invention might be to one "skilled in the art," as patent lawyers are so fond of saying, if the method of delivery changes, a company can file a new patent. A short time later, aTunes is the proud owner of a patent.
Over the next few months, a trickle of applications for automobile-based applications becomes a torrent. Pizza delivery by automobiles ("aPizza"). Furniture movers ("aMovers"). Ambulances. Mail delivery. You name it, and if it can be done via an automobile instead of a horse, some company patents "the use of an automobile to...." You sometimes wonder if a bright clerk in a lawyer's office hasn't run off a million copies of the same opening lines, over and over again.
Fast-forward (just slightly) to the year 1911, and the bright promise of the automobile is over. In fact, scarcely anyone can afford an automobile or would dare to use one in their business for fear of having a lawsuit brought against them. Furniture moving, for example: The original aMovers company failed, but a shady outfit bought all their assets at the bankruptcy sale, including the patent rights. Now aMovers' business model is to sue anyone who moves a stick of furniture by automobile (and using the rules, aMovers compelled you to issue a patent for their business model!). Most movers gave up and still use horse-drawn wagons; besides, no automobile company will even build a furniture-moving automobile, because there simply aren't enough buyers, and because aMovers might sue them for "abetting patent infringement."
The aPizza company decided their patent covered delivery of any ready-to-eat food. Restaurants, which had looked forward to a new business of quick delivery of all sorts of hot food, backed away from the threat of lawsuits. A few had opened windows on the side of their shops to let automobiles pull up and order food; aPizza sued the customers and those shops failed. In fact, now aPizza, along with a slew of other a-companies, has lobbied the Swiss government to impose a tax on all gasoline, with proceeds to go to aPizza. The companies argue that owning an automobile automatically leads to patent infringement and they deserve compensation.
And as for the aTunes company, their tentacles are everywhere in the music business. If a clerk takes an automobile to deliver the first draft of a new song, they want their cut. Send sheet music by mail? The company had the audacity to sue the post office for using a delivery van. They even sued local taxi drivers to demand a flat-rate fee every time a taxi conveys a patron to the Grand Opera, and you hear rumors that automobile horns that are "too musical" might be next on their list.
Taxi drivers, furniture movers, grocers, restaurants, musicians...none of them can use the automobile. And the tide of patent applications continues to pour in. You lay awake at night wondering if this wonderful invention, the automobile, can ever really belong to the people instead of to the first person to reach your office door.
Moshe Yudkowsky, Ph.D., is president of Disaggregate Consulting and author of The Pebble and the Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolution. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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