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The Sewing Machine War 136

Posted by timothy
from the gmu-rockin'-in-the-free-world dept.
lousyd writes "Volokh has hosted a paper by George Mason University law professor Adam Mossoff on the patent fracas a century and a half ago surrounding the sewing machine. A Stitch in Time: The Rise and Fall of the Sewing Machine Patent Thicket challenges assumptions by courts and scholars today about the alleged efficiency-choking complexities of the modern patent system. Mossoff says that complementary inventions, extensive patent litigation, so-called 'patent trolls,' patent thickets, and privately formed patent pools have long been features of the American patent system reaching back to the antebellum era."
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The Sewing Machine War

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  • by Reorix (1184073) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @02:32PM (#27776507) Homepage
    As far as the argument goes that the patent structure has been litigious, complicated, and obnoxious for a long time, I think we can all agree. Slashdot often discusses copyright as it applies to digital music, and it's interesting that the digital music industry began at a time in which there was heavy litigation over the copying of sheet music; this was in the late 1800's.

    But the argument that this complex patent superstructure doesn't reduce efficiency seems a little far fetched to me. Just because we've done it this way for a long time doesn't automatically mean that it's the best system. Who can say what would have happened over the last century and a half with less complicated patent laws? I'm sure there would be no consensus as to whether we would have done better or worse.

    The most compelling case for copyright, for me, comes from Joseph Schumpeter's concept of creative destruction. In essence, he argues that copyright creates more innovation because it does not allow people to use the status quo of ideas. However, I'm not sure that the complexity of the copyright system is what he had in mind, since adding complexity increases barrier entries to innovators without increasing incentives to monopolists (i.e. copyright holders) to improve as well.
  • by phantomfive (622387) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @02:36PM (#27776563) Journal
    From the paper:

    The denouement of the sewing machine patent thicket in the Sewing Machine Combination of 1856, the first privately formed patent pool, further challenges the widely held belief that patent thickets are best solved through new statutes, regulations or court decisions that limit property rights in patents.

    Essentially he says that patent thickets are not a problem, because they resolve themselves eventually. I suppose it was a good ending for those who owned the patents, but maybe not for those who wanted to do research in the field of sewing machine invention.

  • Getting to it (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SuperKendall (25149) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @02:38PM (#27776597)

    The main point is that many people say the patent issues we have now are unique to the times, which as shown is not the case since the same patent issues (patent thickets, patent "trolls") existed 100 years ago).

    Thus by studying the history of how that event turned out, we can better decide how to approach our current issues. As the article states there are assumptions about patent issues today that people make that this history shows to be incorrect - by knowing that we can avoid fixing the wrong things or moving in the wrong direction.

  • by drakaan (688386) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @03:00PM (#27776995) Homepage Journal

    The idea of patent protection is to protect companies who spend on machinery and fabrication and tooling and materials, etc against an interloper who can mass-produce the new thing without having to do the groundwork and research first. Once you create something genuinely new, you are granted a temporary monopoly to reward your inventiveness.

    With software, it's not the same scenario. Unpaid hackers in their garage have the same barrier to entry as big corporations (namely none) in trying out new ideas for software on general-purpose computers. A computer probably costs less for a large software company to buy than for an individual, in fact. Aside from that, writing code is an exercise in pure thought, and ideas are not patentable...you can write the ideas down and copyright them, but as the lawyer in a previous post said, "nobody makes money from copyright litigation".

    The article is nearly a troll, and at best a poorly concieved attempt at attacking a straw-man, since it's not the patent system in general that's faulted lately, it's software *patents* that are gumming up the works.

  • by Rolgar (556636) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @03:08PM (#27777095)

    The advantage to the inventor of an invention was supposed to be a limited 'first mover' advantage, where the inventor gets the opportunity to establish market share, name recognition, work out the bugs and recover some of the development cost for a limited period of time.

    220 years ago, items were produced one at a time, and one craftsman would do all the work. Today, with mass production, the advantage should be gained or surrendered in a much shorter period of time. Three years is enough time with modern technology to secure the fruits of patent protection. Beyond that, we have serious limitations imposed by patents on real competition.

    We should also add a new requirement, that if anybody, given only a description of what the device does, can make the same item or one that near perfectly replicates the function of the invention within one year, the patent should be considered obvious, and not allowed.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 30, 2009 @03:10PM (#27777123)

    How about this for patent reform:

    Impose the death penalty for anyone who attempts to patent doing some mundane activity "over the Internet."

  • by dgatwood (11270) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @03:13PM (#27777179) Journal

    I would argue that the current sad state of the sewing machine industry is a direct result of the "solution" to those patents. If there were fewer patents, imagine how much better these things could be. Instead, there is negligible innovation. There are basically only a couple of companies that make them, and the products are crap and getting worse by the year. They jam constantly, the work needed to thread the needle through the assembly is insanely complicated, the work needed to replace the bobbin underneath is a nightmare, etc. Unfortunately, everybody who could have come up with a better design was thwarted by the Sewing Machine Combination you speak of, and the result is that the entire industry converged to a single bad design that hasn't evolved significantly ever since.

    By now, we should have sewing machines that use high end robotics to place the stitch in exactly the right place every time, that hold the thread out of the way for you, that detect jams and shut off instantly, that don't jam constantly, that don't tear the material, etc. Instead, we're stuck with sewing machines that apart from electric motors and some simple stitch pattern functionality are very nearly the same fundamental designs as those a hundred years ago or more. The pace of their evolution is positively glacial by comparison with most technology areas.

  • by phantomfive (622387) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @03:14PM (#27777193) Journal
    No, the difference is the main players held all the patents, which would essentially prevent competition from outsiders. They created the sewing machine cabal.
  • by noidentity (188756) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @03:40PM (#27777537)

    A Stitch in Time: The Rise and Fall of the Sewing Machine Patent Thicket challenges assumptions by courts and scholars today about the alleged efficiency-choking complexities of the modern patent system. Mossoff says that complementary inventions, extensive patent litigation, so-called 'patent trolls,' patent thickets, and privately formed patent pools have long been features of the American patent system reaching back to the antebellum era.

    And? That they existed then too doesn't make them a good thing. The standard the patent system has to meet is to "promote the progress of science and useful arts". If it's not doing that, scrap it! The loss of parasites means a gain for us.

  • Re:The point (Score:5, Insightful)

    by burnin1965 (535071) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @04:00PM (#27777821) Homepage

    Summary of his conclusion:

    Industry in the United States has suffered from patent thickets and patent trolls almost since the inception of patent laws. We can expect to continually see patent thickets and patent trolls as many inventions and innovations today are incremental and based on prior patents. And since the Sewing Machine Wars were solved without changing the patent system or intervention of the government there is no reason to react today.

    After reading the paper, my conclusion:
    He is correct on all counts except the last one about the system taking care of itself. His paper provides two salient historical events that prove contrary to the last conclusion; first the only means by which the sewing machine manufacturers were able to break free of the patent litigation war and finally get to the business of making sewing machines, making profits, and innovating further was to circumvent the patent system by placing patents in a pool, and second he notes the patent thicket and trolls that plagued the newly born aircraft industry and was only solved when the government stepped in and created a patent pool so the industry could get to the business of aircraft instead of litigation.

    Yes, the patent system was fscked from the beginning, all one has to do is read up on Benjamin Franklin's opinions of the new patent system, but assuming it will simply take care of itself is ludicrous. If such a conclusion is valid then we can also conclude that we can simply eliminate the patent system altogether and what comes of it will simply take care of itself.

    Based on the patent pools as a solution it appears that patent law is in violation of the United States Constitution as the objective was "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts" and yet the patent laws are impeding progress.

  • Re:The 'what' era? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 30, 2009 @04:34PM (#27778305)

    Sort out your capitalization, it's embarrassing to see adults writing like that.

  • by vertinox (846076) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @05:22PM (#27779173)

    Essentially he says that patent thickets are not a problem, because they resolve themselves eventually. I suppose it was a good ending for those who owned the patents, but maybe not for those who wanted to do research in the field of sewing machine invention.

    Yeah. Of course patents resolve themselves eventually because they have a 17 (or so) year time limitation them.

    Copyright on the other hand...

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