Thursday, August 5, 2010

Inventions and Patents: Past and Future

In the 1980's while working for IBM, I did a study of patents and inventions as part of a technical professional development effort. An article that summarized what I learned is stored in the Internet Archive here.

The technical professional development effort is described in the chapter on Developing an Organization in my book Innovate! (McGraw Hill, 1994) I was able to increase the number of patents per technical professional at the IBM Austin site by 70%.

The patent concept is probably about 2100 years old. In antiquity, the patent concept was very broad. It was granted by monarchy to establish rank, precedence, land conveyance, monopoly, and invention. The earliest known monopolies were granted to cooks in about 500 BC in Sybaris, Greece for unique dishes.

The patent concept, as we know it, evolved from this through Greece, Rome, Germany, France,
and England. There was much abuse of patents as they were handed out to friends of the ruling
monarch even if they did not do the work on the invention. Patent law precedents for the current system were most influenced by Queen Elizabeth in England.

The economic equation in the US became something like this: If you teach us (society) about your invention (transfer of knowledge), we will grant you exclusive commercial use of your invention for a period of time. Beyond that time, your invention becomes part of the commons. As a result of the teaching part of the equation, some inventions were kept as trade secrets.

A lot has changed since over the last 25 years since I did the study of patents. We now have many alternative ways of creating and disseminating knowledge and invention open to almost everyone. The economic equation is changing.

As an example, consider the first use of a patent concept - to protect recipes. I remember as a kid that recipes were family secrets handed down from your grandmother. Books of recipes were expensive. Now the Internet is full of recipes and a video channel is devoted to giving recipes and know-how away. Money is being made off of the services provided by the chefs, not just from protecting their secrets.

It's a similar model for open source programs.

I'm reading The Wealth of Networks, and have just finished The Cathedral and the Bazaar (I'm working on a summary now). And, I've been pursuing the idea of an innovation commons based on some of the ideas from other sources as well. Those can be found by clicking on commons in the keyword list in the left column of this blog.

Much more to come later.

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