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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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  • Prediction (Score:1, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward
    China wins.
  • The 'what' era? (Score:5, Informative)

    by fiannaFailMan (702447) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @02:20PM (#27776349) Journal

    From wiki:

    "Antebellum" is an expression derived from Latin that means "before war" (ante, "before," and bellum, "war").

    In United States history and historiography, "antebellum" is commonly used, in lieu of "pre-Civil War," in reference to the period of increasing sectionalism that led up to the American Civil War. In that sense, the Antebellum Period is often considered to have begun with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, though it is sometimes stipulated to extend back as early as 1812. The period after the Civil War is called the Reconstruction era.

    You learn something new every day.

  • by HangingChad (677530) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @02:21PM (#27776361) Homepage

    I was talking to a partner company one time and they were all about telling me how much they've spent on a patent attorney to patent their web site, which was basically a paint-by-numbers hosting site. There would have to be a ton of prior art on that and then they acted surprised when I told them about the Bilski case.

    Another one in New York was convinced they could patent the idea of specialized user portal. When I tried to explain the difference between patent and copyright, they snuffed and reminded me that no one ever made money on copyright litigation.

    The system we have now is absolutely insane. If you really want to reduce nuisance and frivolous litigation, then start with the patent system. And I hope the courts add to the Bilski ruling and puts an end to this nonsense.

    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      How about this for patent reform:

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

    • Um. What is your point?

      Bilski has nothing to do with prior art. Bilski introduced a new test for patent-eligible subject matter, namely the "machine-or-transformation" test. But really Bilski is a cry for help from the Federal Circuit - they are almost begging the Supreme Court to provide guidance. And the Supreme Court has expressly asked Congress for guidance on the patent-eligible subject matter issue.

      I hope Congress passes a patent reform act some day because the courts are confused, and most of the

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by jank1887 (815982)
        When outrage over outsourcing started grabbing front page headlines, it was frequently mentioned that the U.S. no longer actually produces anything, and that its chief output was 'intellectual property'. So why is anyone surprised that the government has frequently been catering to the whims of the IP industries? DMCA for starters. Current administration proposing secret ACTA treaties to promote copyright. Congress failing to impose limits on patents, define fair use, etc.

        IP abuse, it's all we got left.

    • by averner (1341263)

      they snuffed and reminded me that no one ever made money on copyright litigation.

      Have they ever heard of the RIAA?

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Absolut187 (816431)

        Actually, I'm pretty sure the RIAA was losing money on the litigation itself (i.e. spending more in attorney fees than they were collecting).
        I think that's why they gave up.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 30, 2009 @02:23PM (#27776395)

    They actually claimed rights over the analog device outputs, if you can believe that.

    You couldn't even darn your socks by directly streaming threads or applying patches without paying royalties.

  • What's this guys point? It's always been a disaster so why try to fix it? Or does he have something constructive to say that I've missed?
    • by jbeaupre (752124) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @02:29PM (#27776481)

      2 possible conclusions:

      1) Don't get your knickers in a twist over patents. The US has managed just fine.
      2) Sewing machine patents caused the Civil War!

    • 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.

      • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

        by rattaroaz (1491445)
        I think the major problem is that of extremes. Many people argue that patents themselves are not bad, but when taken to the extreme that you can patent anything, and shut down a business for the smallest patent, and the fact that there are so many out there, many of which are conflicting, and redundant, that it is not reasonable to really understand what is patented and what is not, THAT is the bad thing. I'm not sure if this teaches us anything, other than that we didn't have the extremes back then, but
    • 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.

      • by StikyPad (445176)

        Ah, but that's where you're wrong! It was to promote the Progrefs thereof, and as everybody knows, Progrefs was the predecessor to PostgreSQL.

  • by MarkRose (820682) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @02:24PM (#27776421) Homepage

    When it comes to patents in the textile industry, you reap what you sew!

  • 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.
    • 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.

      Is this anything like how breaking people's windows will stimulate the economy [wikipedia.org]?

      • No, because breaking windows uses up resources. There are ~infinitely many possible copyrightable things, so the more incentive we have to make them, the more we make. Now, of course, making these things also takes resources, but that didn't seem to stop Linus & friends. I do agree that Copyright etc. as they stand are FAR too *AA-biased, however [wikipedia.org].

      • by Firethorn (177587)

        hmm... I certainly think that it can result in waste, but on the whole, proper patent laws are a benefit.

        If the inventer/patent holder licenses/commercializes/sells their work for a good price, they get rich if the idea's good enough.

        If they're unwilling to sell for a good price, people are forced to find a work around. In the process, they may or may not find another way that's more efficient than the original patent.

        Finally, you get to the point that patents, unlike copyrights, will expire in most peopl

        • hmm... I certainly think that it can result in waste, but on the whole, proper patent laws are a benefit.

          Remember, letting an inventor earn a profit off of their invention isn't a bad thing.

          Patents do this by permitting the patent holder to forbid other people from doing certain things or using certain knowledge. It seems [ucla.edu] that the negative effects of this tend to outweigh any positive effects of making it easier for inventors to turn a profit.

    • ... is still broken. It just means we are more overdue to fix it than most people realize.

      But, since it's mostly lawyers who would hav eto fix it, and it funds lots of lawyers...

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Reorix (1184073)

      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.

      Hmm, whoops, I guess I mispoke. I don't know about the digital music industry beginning in the late 1800's. What I meant was the recorded music industry.

      Either moderators were being kind and understanding (at Slashdot?!), or not only do slashdot members not RTFA, they don't RTFC either.

      • by rts008 (812749)

        Either moderators were being kind and understanding (at Slashdot?!), or not only do slashdot members not RTFA, they don't RTFC either.

        You left out:
        c. lost in the noise, thus 'tuned out'
        d. none of the above
        e. all of the above
        f. Cowboy Neal

      • by unitron (5733) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @03:36PM (#27777489) Homepage Journal

        I thought maybe you were using a definition of digital music sufficiently broad to encompass player piano rolls.

        • Why is this marked funny? Those player piano rolls were clearly digital.

          The adjective digital refers to the type of data used to record the information. If it's 0/1, hole/no hole, or even a finite collection of symbols, then it's digital. This has nothing to do with electronics.

          An alternative to digital is analog. For example, the phonograph records of the same period were analog, because the music was encoded by grooves in the physical record plate.

          • by unitron (5733)

            It is possible for an observation to be both accurate and, in some contexts, humorous (intentionally or otherwise) as well.

          • Why is this marked funny? Those player piano rolls were clearly digital.

            The adjective digital refers to the type of data used to record the information. If it's 0/1, hole/no hole, or even a finite collection of symbols, then it's digital. This has nothing to do with electronics.

            Turns out that player piano rolls aren't digital. They just look digital if you don't think closely about it. The signals *are* on or off, but the duration of the signal isn't quantized by anything other than the accuracy of

            • I thought the rolls were designed for a particular rotation rate (not that it couldn't be overridden)? But since musical notation quantizes time, the precise length of the cuts wouldn't be intended to be relevant.

              Broadly speaking though, I agree with your point - it's not like we're at the Planck scale here ;-)

              • by unitron (5733)

                I think that the rate at which the rolls scrolled was supposed to be fixed at whatever speed the owner sets the piano to operate, so that they can adjust the tempo within a certain range, just as a conductor or live player could do.

                Musical notation doesn't quantitize time so much as it sets the duration of each note relative to all the others, although some scores include a little "number of beats per minute" suggestion.

                The length of the slots on the roll need to be accurate relative to each other. Since yo

    • by Geof (153857) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @03:19PM (#27777261) Homepage

      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.

      Yet we end up with me-too music, me-too movies, and so on. For example, take the many TV shows that compose their own Mission Impossible-style music because they can't copy the original. The result is wasted effort for an imitation that is less effective.

      What copyright prevents us from re-using is not only ideas, but also the form and social significance of cultural works. Creativity is often a matter of taking existing material (stories, songs, film footage) and using it to express new ideas. Because of copyright, a lot of effort that could be directed towards developing new ideas is instead spent on creating (often) derivative material - because only then can new ideas be expressed. Furthermore, the spread of the new ideas is limited because the audience must learn this new vocabulary. If you want to use Darth Vader to make a political statement, you can't - instead you must not only create your own Darth Vader equivalent, your audience must also invest time and effort to get the Darth Vader meaning - all before you can even make the political argument.

      Think, if Shakespeare had had to come up with the plots for his plays, would he have been as innovative with language? If Disney had had to come up with their own fairy tales, would they have been able to draw on centuries of significance? Copying some things lets artists focus on their strengths. It frees them from the requirement to be jacks-of-all-trades. In an environment of strong copyright, rightsholder conglomerates (like Disney, like Sony) solve this problem by bringing together a range of content and artists together under one roof. The cost is that artistic vision must give way to commercial ownership and control ownership - control that typically prefers the tried-and-true to the innovative and new.

      The justification for copyright is that it pays back the up-front cost of producing the work itself. The argument is exactly what you say - that we need more of it, or rather that it would otherwise be underproduced. But of course the important thing for society is not the content itself. It is not the words on paper, the images on film that matter: it is what we do with it. We encourage writing because we want political discussion, we want intellectual engagement, we want social activity (dancing to music, watching a movie with friends), and so on. From that perspective, copyright (at least as it stands) diverts resources away from what we really want, and towards content that in many cases adds little.

      (To be fair, there is another claim for copyright, which is that it creates the infrastructure necessary to nurture talent in order to produce really high quality works. This assumes that talent is scarce and/or would not otherwise be developed, and that the infrastructure - the entertainment industries - actually do direct that talent towards and produce high quality. I don't find this convincing, but even if it were true it still has to content with the fact that copyright clamps down on the socialization, political engagement, and so on that are the real reason culture matters.)

    • I think you may have Schumpeter backwards.

      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.

      Did Schumpeter actually make such a claim about copyright? If so, I want to know - please point me to it.

      Schumpeter argued for capitalism's need for innovation. At first, capitalists would invest in some new technology and reap

  • by nimbius (983462) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @02:33PM (#27776521) Homepage
    covered before. an evil sewing machine is sent back in time to destroy the human resistance led by john conner, head of a local stitch'n'bitch in rural california.

    or ive proudly avoided RTFA oncemore.
  • 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.

    • by richie2000 (159732) <rickard.olsson@gmail.com> on Thursday April 30, 2009 @03:11PM (#27777145) Homepage Journal

      The conclusion I draw from reading the paper is that this patent thicket was resolved by the main players essentially agreeing to stop bothering about suing each other and start manufacturing sewing machines instead - as if the patent system had not existed at all. So the way to fix the problems that patents create is to ignore patents. Tell me again why we have them in the first place?

      • 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.
        • With the kind of PR, business sense and the regular first-to-market advantages already inherent in the Combination members, I don't really see how they could realistically fear outside competition. Real fortune seldom lie in preventing competition as this takes focus away from actually competing.

    • 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.

      • These are interesting thoughts, but the patents expired over a hundred years ago. I don't think you can blame any lack of innovation since then on the patent system.

        Incidentally, if you are looking for innovation in the sewing machine area, you might want to look at a serger. My mom loves hers: it cuts the fabric and hems it for her. Pretty awesome. Also, if your sewing machine jams constantly, you probably need a new machine or better technique.
      • Bobbin underneath? You need a better machine. My 40 yr old singer has a top-loading self-winding drop-in bobbin. When I saw the nightmare contraption other manufacturers call a bobbin I just laughed, "You mean you have to take the bobbin out of the machine and put it WHERE to wind it?". Newer singers also have made threading the machine easier.

        James

        • by matria (157464)

          I always make sure to get a machine that has the bobbin fill on the outside of the machine so I can also use it to quickly and smoothly fill a bobbin with tatting thread to use in my tatting shuttles. Right now, though, I'm drooling over a Bernina 830. Bernina and Pfaff now have motion sensing devices to control speed and stitch length as you move the fabric. These are both of German design, however, so I suppose this is actually off-topic.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by vertinox (846076)

      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...

    • 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.

      Just to play the devil's advocate. Part of the rationale for the patent system is that it encourages the sharing of knowledge. You publish your invention so everyone can see it and learn from it and it won't be lost if the the few who understand it die

      • It should be possible to encourage innovation, which is a good thing, without trying to set up monopolies, which are bad. Possibly worse, these are not natural monopolies which may need government intervention to break, but near impossible to define and enforce artificial ones that only function with lots of government intervention. Republicans want small government, it's said? Why not close the patent office, and get out of the intellectual property biz? Stop interfering with inventors!

        How bad artifi

        • It should be possible to encourage innovation, which is a good thing, without trying to set up monopolies, which are bad. Possibly worse, these are not natural monopolies which may need government intervention to break, but near impossible to define and enforce artificial ones that only function with lots of government intervention. Republicans want small government, it's said? Why not close the patent office, and get out of the intellectual property biz? Stop interfering with inventors!

          Let me preface my p

  • by MikeRT (947531) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @02:38PM (#27776609) Homepage

    Most of the economy was agrarian and the creation of new products was a much rarer act. The patent trolls had a much smaller terrain in which to do their hunting.

    Today, only 2% of the workforce works in the agriculture sector. The creation of new products and services is how most Americans get into business. The patent system, working with the same unfixed flaws, cannot scale up to control the threat of patent trolls.

    I think the simplest solution is to tie ownership of patents to either pure research or production. I have no problem with Qualcomm licensing patents from its research. I have no problem with a manufacturing company patenting the hell out of its products. I have extreme problem with law firms and companies composed of 2 weasels in business suits and a lawyer owning patents.

    • by hitmark (640295)

      said 2 weasels and a rat company is probably funded by the stock market, and the "people" (or do that diminish the value of said label?) are probably not the owners, but just the daily management of said company...

      got to love the modern corporation, no?

    • by jbeaupre (752124) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @02:48PM (#27776783)

      I have extreme problem with law firms and companies composed of 2 weasels in business suits and a lawyer owning patents.

      Times are tough. It's hard to find a job. I don't buy the "Mexican's are stealing jobs" argument. But I'll be damned if I'm going to tolerate weasels putting on business suits and stealing jobs from humans!

      • ...I'll be damned if I'm going to tolerate weasels putting on business suits and stealing jobs from humans!

        Why? When they stand for public office, everybody votes for them.
        • by jbeaupre (752124)
          You proved my point: There are jobs for humans and jobs for weasels. Stealing human jobs is verboten!
      • by unitron (5733)

        But I'll be damned if I'm going to tolerate weasels putting on business suits and stealing jobs from humans!

        How about Geckos?

    • I think the simplest solution is to tie ownership of patents to either pure research or production. I have no problem with Qualcomm licensing patents from its research. I have no problem with a manufacturing company patenting the hell out of its products. I have extreme problem with law firms and companies composed of 2 weasels in business suits and a lawyer owning patents.

      In other words you would deny the owner of a patent of his most basic right - the ability to sell it. (And what is a sale but a permane

      • Derek: This is Slashdot. Just scream "OMG PATENTS ARE TEH SUXXORZ!!11!!" and move on.
        Don't be a pest.

      • by Bobb9000 (796960)

        In other words you would deny the owner of a patent of his most basic right - the ability to sell it. (And what is a sale but a permanent exclusive license?)

        While I agree that that's a problem with proposals like the GP's, I beg to differ as to selling a patent being the owner's "most basic right". The most basic right conferred by a patent is the right to exclude others from using your invention. Go back to the Constitution, Article I, Section 8:

        "The Congress shall have power . . . To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries"

        The

        • The most basic right conferred by a patent is the right to exclude others from using your invention.
          ---

          Agreed. But sometimes you can't exclude people by yourself.
          Patent lawyers are expensive.
          So you need venture capital.
          Venture capital = the dreaded "patent troll".
          Patent trolls can't get injunctions. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EBay_Inc._v._MercExchange,_L.L.C. [wikipedia.org])
          No injunction = less money.
          Less money to venture capital/"troll" = less money to inventor.

          So by denying the patent troll the right to exclude

          • by Bobb9000 (796960)
            Hold on now...several of your lines there are pretty contentious. First off, venture capital groups do not automatically equate to patent trolling. I'm not one of those who says that any non-practicing entity is a troll. To my mind, the designation "patent troll" is only deserved when you're rolling with a certain combination of crappy patents, underhanded tactics, and nuisance litigation. I'm in favor of tightening up the patentability standards, personally, not trying to target any classes.

            I agree with
            • ---
              "First off, venture capital groups do not automatically equate to patent trolling. "
              ---

              Agree 100%. Tell it to the Supreme Court and CAFC.

              ---
              "To my mind, the designation "patent troll" is only deserved when you're rolling with a certain combination of crappy patents, underhanded tactics, and nuisance litigation."
              ---

              All litigation is a nuisance if you're the defendant. The "crappy patents" issue is totally separate from ownership. Even General Electric could own "crappy patents". I think we should focu

    • 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.

      • Actually the main idea of the patent system is to encourage disclosure to the public.
        A quid-pro-quo for the temporary monopoly.

        Google could just as easily keep their software secret.
        http://www.patentlyo.com/patent/2008/07/the-death-of-go.html [patentlyo.com]

        But to address your "free-rider" argument, why is time and effort spent designing and writing a computer program any less deserving of protection than time and effort spent in - say - designing a new crop implement or a new drug?

        All patents "gum up the works". That is

      • by curunir (98273) *

        ...it's software *patents* that are gumming up the works.

        I understand the sentiment against software patents, since the kind that have been granted have generally been overly broad or relatively obvious, but I have a problem with invalidating all software patents. It's almost a condemnation of the field of computer science by declaring that the product of the research in the field to be unworthy of patent protection when other scientific fields enjoy that protection.

        I would argue that there are algorithms t

        • by siddesu (698447)

          "how easily people here will casually dismiss computer science"

          lol, wut? science is not patentable by definition of the patent. there's a reason for that, summarized by some scientist some centuries ago. he's quoted to have said "we stand upon shoulders of giants" or somesuch.

          "when other scientific fields enjoy that protection."

          like which? care to provide an example? math? physics? biology?

        • You are correct in your post, unfortunately the laws over-reached and got it all wrong as usual. You use the word 'algorithm' in all your examples: those can truly be non-obvious and 'contribute to the advancement of the sciences'.

          The 'business process' patents are what most people have a problem with. How can what is essentially a 'flow-chart' (much of which has probably existed in offices and maintained on paper for many years) be patentable?

          Therein lies the rub.
        • by drakaan (688386)

          I know that it "seems" wrong, but the simple truth is that ideas cannot be patented. Machines that produce a physical change can be patented (Dolby patents the hardware it creates to do sound encoding and decoding and charges manufacturers for the ability to use that in their equipment). I agree that is a legitimately patentable "new" device...at least for now. Eventually, general purpose computing will eclipse certain types of discrete electronic components, and things will come down to algorithms (whic

          • by curunir (98273) *

            Eventually, general purpose computing will eclipse certain types of discrete electronic components...

            This makes your distinction between physical hardware and software more arbitrary, not less. Hardware is increasingly just software sent to a fab in Asia to produce. If I come up with an algorithm, if I write it up in Verilog, by your standards, I get to patent it. But if I write it up in C, it's not patentable. That's nonsensical.

            Software is never anything but an idea that gets written down, and patents on

            • by drakaan (688386)

              General purpose computing eclipsing discrete components doesn't make the distinction between hardware and software more arbitrary, it narrows the range of processes that *require* patented machinery to function.

              A CPU is not an algorithm, it is a device. Verilog is a tool (like a drafting table) that can be used to design such a device. My standards say nothing about the tools used to design the hardware. As long as said hardware is novel in a definable way from what came before it, it is patentable.

              The a

    • by fermion (181285)
      There are other differences in terms of travel, rapid communication, and data processing capability. One can imagine that 100 years ago we would never have had litigation about farmers in the backwaters being sued because they might be saving seeds. Equal I doubt Bayer had the resources to sue everyone into oblivion for extracting their medicine from willow bark.

      Then lets take that great homage to the greatest anti-bussiness anti-free market rally that so many took part in a couple weeks ago. Would des

    • What if a "weasel in a business suit" invents something really innovative and beneficial?

      What about University professors, are they "patent trolls"? They don't tend to manufacture.

      Are researchers allowed to sell/license their patents to "weasels in business suits"?
      And if they can't, what does that do to the value of the patent?

      What we really need now is a focus on the novelty and non-obviousness of the claims, not ownership of the patent, and not what kind of clothes the owners wear..

    • The primary reason why intellectual property laws were written into the constitution was to incentivise people to create useful things for the greater good by giving them a limited period of exclusivity in the creation of those things (goods, designs, creative works). Your idea of penalizing an inventor with no manufacturing capacity of his own works against the intent of the patent system. Obviously the way things are now allows the system to be gamed but some of the exploitable aspects are necessary to he

  • by GuyFawkes (729054) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @02:49PM (#27776797) Homepage Journal

    two fold...

    neither reason had anything to do with how good the machines were, Singer failed miserably to make it a viable business until he took a lawyer on board, and the two unique business methods were implemented.

    1/ Singer sewing machines introduced the idea of buying a sewing machine on credit, and pushed this as the preferred way to purchase.

    2/ The list price of each machine was extremely high, but you got a huge discount for trading in your old machine.

    What this means was that everyone traded in, they would even buy an old used machine specifically to trade it in... Singer scrapped every single machine that was traded in.

    So on the one hand they were the only company who offered easy credit, and on the other hand they were wiping out the market of competing marques as second hand machines.

    From a business perspective, brilliant.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Absolut187 (816431)

      If the Singer machines sucked so much, why would people take out a loan AND trade in their old machine just to get a Singer??

      • by GuyFawkes (729054)

        Nobody said they sucked...

        In today's money they were maybe equivalent to an desktop Epilog CO2 laser machine.

        If every other desktop laser engraver is proprietary, cash only, an Epilog doesn't stand out.

        If Epilog start doing credit purchase as the standard way of buying, and offer a 5000 buck trade in for any other desktop laser, before you know it the only second hand lasers are Epilog, and they are all worth 5k, and before you know it "sewing machine = Singer"

        There are lots of clones around, my mum has a c

      • by rts008 (812749)

        Monster Cables, MS Windows, SUV's, 50 inch TV screens, 'designer-label' clothes, etc....

        The concept is not new...where have you been?

  • What is new today is the rise of global, large-scale collaboration on public-benefit works like Open Source software and Creative Commons, much of which is produced without any profit motive. This was made possible by the Internet, and to a lesser extent by Usenet before it. IMO the existence of this collaboration changes the entire economic equation, and if the patent system doesn't fit it well, it's the patent system that has to change.

    Bruce

    • by siddesu (698447)

      What is also new today (or, stronger and better coordinated than 20 years ago) is the mechanism where nefarious organizations like the WIPO are used by politicians and lobbyists to subvert national discourse on "IP" legislation, passing inconvenient stuff as "international agreements" and then imposing it on the national public opinion as the "international consensus", subverting the democratic process totally.

      One side does it for the censorship and monitoring potential, the other - for the monopoly powers

  • by beadfulthings (975812) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @02:54PM (#27776901) Journal

    About early sewing machines, really isn't the patent fights. It's about the way they were sold. Singer sewing machines were the first big-ticket household items sold to average buyers on installment credit. Far too expensive for the average household, they were pitched to the housewife together with low, "easy" regular payments.

    My mom died recently, and I inherited her sewing machine which is still in perfect condition but which was state-of-the-art back in 1959. She was incredibly jealous of it and allowed no one to use it--ever. I did a little reading on it and found that when new, it cost about two months's salary for my father. No wonder.

    Isaac Singer was something of a failure before he came up with the easy payment plan. He had a product that was wanted and needed by people who couldn't pay for it all at once. The company he started thrived and succeeded for over a century thereafter. Too bad it's been absorbed now and is nothing more than a name--they made a damned good sewing machine.

  • by Ukab the Great (87152) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @02:55PM (#27776903)

    In times like these, it is helpful to remember that there have always been times like these--Paul Harvey

  • Another example (Score:4, Interesting)

    by nsayer (86181) <nsayer AT kfu DOT com> on Thursday April 30, 2009 @02:55PM (#27776907) Homepage

    Los Angeles is what it is today primarily because of Edison's patent thicket around motion pictures. Edison operated out of New Jersey. Those who wanted to make motion pictures without a patent license had to get as far away from Edison's enforcement squads as possible, and Los Angeles qualified and had nice weather for filming.

    Move forward a couple decades and you come to the era of the Studio system. The only way to make a movie during that period was under the auspices of the studios. Why? Because they had a patent pool thicket formed around special effects techniques, and nothing more interesting than a talking-head documentary could really be done without impinging on at least part of it.

    Nowadays, we stand on the brink of another era of patent thicket in motion pictures - this time around digital special effects. We'll have to see how this one turns out.

  • 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 moder

  • 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.

  • In the past few years I've seen devices in the low $k that can do amazing things with sewing and embroidery, but can't get a good sense of the extent of their capability. From an external view, they look to be something between a smart sewing machine and string-based plotter, and are capable of sewing and trimming (and who knows what else) in one pass. Anyone have good references or stories about what these things are capable of, and at a more technical level, what they actually are?
    • by Animats (122034)

      The Brother Quattro [brother-usa.com] is a good example. Brother makes printers, machine tools, and sewing machines. All three lines come together in their computer-controlled embroidery machine. This one even has a built-in LCD panel. There's embroidery software, too, for designing embroidery work. (I had to learn about this once when an artist friend sent me a "company logo" file she's been given for a web site, but couldn't read. It turned out to be an embroidery machine control file. I found a program that could re

  • by rmcd (53236) * on Thursday April 30, 2009 @05:06PM (#27778929)

    See also Unlocking the Sky [amazon.com] by Seth Shulman. It's a fascinating account of Glenn Curtiss, who in many ways did more to create the modern airplane than the Wright Brothers. For example, Curtiss invented ailerons; the Wrights by contrast had a difficult to control system that physically twisted the wings. But the Wright patents prevented Curtiss from selling his planes, and it was only military intervention that got the market moving.

    This book will reinforce any ill feelings you may have toward the patent system.

  • Has the USA *ever* had an 'antebellum' era? ('antebellum' meaning 'before war')

    I thought that the USA averaged a major war every 20 years ever since the nation was formed?

    • by grocer (718489)
      The war in this case is the Civil War...the one that basically created the idea of Federal Government as we know it...and even then, it only refers to the period immediately before the Civil War, generally.

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