A couple things I want to post about today, other than Magic arcana. First, this is yet another ridiculous abuse of our current intellectual property system. It gives some background on the Blackberry lawsuit*, explaining how one man is accusing people who probably never heard of him of copyright infringement.**
This is a story in two parts. The first takes us to the U.S. Patent and Trademark office, where well-intentioned but overworked patent examiners are flooded with highly complex patent applications and asked to approve or deny them on deadlines that would make Einstein sweat. The examiners' union calls the PTO a "sweatshop," and no wonder. The examiners, usually recent college graduates, face a variety of pressures, including an internal point system that many say favors speed over accuracy, and applications filed by seasoned professionals, expert in making even the most prosaic "invention" sound like the light bulb.
On Nov. 1, 2005, the PTO issued Boris Volfson of Huntington, Ind., Patent 6,960,975 for his invention of an antigravity space vehicle (according to the application, "the spacetime curvature imbalance … provides for the space vehicle's propulsion"). As this example and others suggest, examiners don't always apply the patentability standards in the most rigorous manner…
It was in this environment that David Stout, co-founder of New Technologies Products, a former examiner and experienced patent lawyer, filed for a series of patents premised on wireless e-mail in the early 1990s. Arguably his patents should never have been granted; the idea of "wireless e-mail" is just too obvious to merit patent.
To the extent that Slate's article talks about the Blackberry case, it seems a lot more biased than usual. But about IP law in general, it seems a good illustration of how serious the problem is.
Washington Monthly goes into more detail, and examples in the medical industry as well. Some of the comments in that thread are informative too. In my previous*** posts on the issue, I've always been aware of the possibility that I might be making a mountain out of a molehill. With everything going on in the world, does it really, really matter if a satirist who wants to lampoon Mickey Mouse has to call his creation "Mikey Mole" to avoid a lawsuit?
Well, maybe that example doesn't matter, but a whole lot about intellectual property does. The Washington Monthly post above linked to that, which shows that even though the problem got a lost worse in the 1990s, it's more than a century old. If the Progress and Freedom Foundation is fighting for the intellectual property of CD companies, are they prepared to defend a totally unnecessary eight-year delay for products like the Model T Ford?
* In the past I've written about copyrights instead of patents, which I realize are different. But the problems with both are rooted in laws and policies that date back to a wildly different media and intellectual environment, were fertilized by billion-dollar corporations who wanted to maintain the status quo and damn the consequences, and result in choking off innovation and progress. As far as I know, when talking about general principles, it's not unfair to lump copyrights and patents together.
** Yeah, it feels weird for me to take the pro-corporation side on this. Like I said, I was surprised at how clear-cut Slate made the issue look, so I'm open to being convinced that I've jumped the gun here. But even if Stout is a saint, this is just collaborating evidence in a long list of ways the current system is broken. Or at least sprained.
*** Not that it matters, but I don't think I ever actually linked to the "Consumer Whore" lawsuit. So there we go.