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The Man Who Created the Pencil Eraser and How Patents Have Changed 234

Posted by samzenpus
from the not-really-new dept.
fermion writes "This weeks 'Who Made That' column in The New York Times concerns the built in pencil eraser. In 1858 Hymen Lipman put a rubber plug into the wood shaft of a pencil. An investor then paid about 2 million in today's dollars for the patent. This investor might have become very rich had the supreme court not ruled that all Lipmen had done was put together two known technologies, so the patent was not valid. The question is where has this need for patents to be innovative gone? After all there is the Amazon one-click patent which, after revision, has been upheld. Microsoft Activesync technology patent seems to simply patent copying information from one place to another. In this modern day do patents promote innovation, or simply protect firms from competition?"
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The Man Who Created the Pencil Eraser and How Patents Have Changed

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  • by Sigvatr (1207234) on Sunday September 15, 2013 @08:19PM (#44859301)
    erased his patent i'll just see myself to the exit
    • by Taco Cowboy (5327) on Sunday September 15, 2013 @09:11PM (#44859597) Journal

      In this modern day do patents promote innovation, or simply protect firms from competition ?

      The issues regarding patents are not only about patents, but also the courts.

      As the pencil and eraser case (circa 1858) has illustrated, the court back then still managed largely to uphold their independence.

      Not now.

      Today, the courts have become an apparatchik for the corporations, the banksters, the politicians, and the power that be.

      Judges back then were chosen based on merits. Judges today are chosen based on who they know.

      • by smitty_one_each (243267) * on Sunday September 15, 2013 @09:20PM (#44859643) Homepage Journal
        Some build up, through genius employed.
        And lesser men must see work destroyed.
      • by Aviation Pete (252403) on Sunday September 15, 2013 @09:24PM (#44859665)

        Judges back then were chosen based on merits. Judges today are chosen based on who they know.

        or maybe the are simply incapable to understand the issue. Back then, a patent had one or two pages and described a (mostly mechanical) issue in simple language. Lawyers today make sure that a patent is minimum 50 pages, and some run to more than 1000. The language is extremely formalized and very hard to read for untrained minds. And the issues are so specialized that the average judge would have to train several years in the particular field to understand what the invention is about.

        Besides - most patents today have most of their innovation in the way the lawyers complicate simple issues. Sigh.

        • by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Sunday September 15, 2013 @10:12PM (#44859873)

          "Back then, a patent had one or two pages and described a (mostly mechanical) issue in simple language. Lawyers today make sure that a patent is minimum 50 pages, and some run to more than 1000. The language is extremely formalized and very hard to read for untrained minds. And the issues are so specialized that the average judge would have to train several years in the particular field to understand what the invention is about."

          Maybe, but -- though I hate to put it this way -- it's really not that simple. Complexity has little to do with the subject under discussion.

          The one-click patent, for example, should never have been awarded because it did nothing new.

          Not only must a patent be non-obvious to someone in the relevant field, and not only must there not be "prior art" (someone else already doing something too similar) it must also be an actual invention. That is to say, it has to be or do something completely new. The point made by the court in OP's post is that it was not an invention because it was just two common things, stuck together.

          A can opener welded to a crowbar is not patentable, because it doesn't do anything new or in a novel way. It's still just a can opener on one end, and a crowbar on the other. But if you stuck two common things together in such a way that the result does something new, then you have a patentable invention.

          If you found a way to make a fan that blows air out of potato chips, in principle that would not be patentable, because you just "stuck together" two existing things; fans and potato chips. It doesn't do anything novel. But if you could build a fan out of potato chips in such a way that it was still edible, you would have a patentable invention because it does something new.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Phroggy (441)

            OneClick was something new; my recollection is that nobody had done anything quite like it - but not because it was novel or innovative. Nobody had done it before because everybody thought it was a bad idea. Store people's credit card numbers on file, readily accessible later just in case the customer decides to come back and buy something else? Click one button to effect a transaction, with money changing hands and everything? Are consumers really gonna trust you to manage that responsibly?

            Amazon's inn

            • by cas2000 (148703)

              > Nobody had done it before because everybody thought it was
              > a bad idea.

              actually, at the time, pretty nearly everyone was doing exactly that and had been doing it for years because they just didn't give a shit that it was a bad idea. after all, "we'll never get hacked".

              Amazon's "innovation" was taking an obvious and well-known idea and claiming it as their own in order to suppress competition.

              and even that wasn't an innovation. it's been SOP for decades, at least.

              • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

                by Phroggy (441)

                actually, at the time, pretty nearly everyone was doing exactly that and had been doing it for years because they just didn't give a shit that it was a bad idea. after all, "we'll never get hacked".

                It sounds like you don't understand what OneClick is. Not only was it not common then, it's not common now. Storing the credit card number is only part of it. Other than Amazon, the only site I'm aware of that does it is Apple's iTunes Store, and Apple licensed the patent from Amazon.

            • "OneClick was something new; my recollection is that nobody had done anything quite like it - but not because it was novel or innovative. Nobody had done it before because everybody thought it was a bad idea."

              It might have been new but it fails the "non-obvious" test.

            • Not only that, but it doesn't even do what it claims to do. Yes you can buy stuff with one click, right after you click a bunch of other things first.

              My dad is always asking me "Which button do I push" when it comes to computers. You'd think amazon 1 click purchasing would be the one thing, for which, that my dad's question would actually have an answer.

              It turns out that every online retailer has the same kind of one click purchasing as well. Once you've verified that you picked all the stuff you want t

            • Much like the rise of curated computing, nobody did it for so long because it was seen as a business suicide plan. But Apple proved that you just need to have an army of die-hard fanboys first.

          • by Nemyst (1383049) on Monday September 16, 2013 @01:03AM (#44860639) Homepage
            The point of the GP is that even a simple patent like Amazon's one-click can be obfuscated, given an army of lawyers, into something unintelligible for most people, judges included. Since there doesn't seem to be a clause for lack of clarity being grounds for patent rejection (which would help a lot in situations like this), the judges just accept them instead of trying to learn or, worse, looking foolish for acknowledging that they don't understand the patent (gasp!).
            • "The point of the GP is that even a simple patent like Amazon's one-click can be obfuscated, given an army of lawyers, into something unintelligible for most people, judges included. Since there doesn't seem to be a clause for lack of clarity being grounds for patent rejection (which would help a lot in situations like this), the judges just accept them instead of trying to learn or, worse, looking foolish for acknowledging that they don't understand the patent (gasp!)."

              Incompetence is not a valid excuse for awarding bad patents.

          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by Anonymous Coward

            That is to say, it has to be or do something completely new.

            I'm confused, really -- what part of "... On a Computer" do you _not_ understand?

            • "I'm confused, really -- what part of '... On a Computer' do you _not_ understand?"

              I think you were probably joking but many people probably take this idea seriously, so I will answer. This is only part of the whole story but the history is illustrative, as it touches on several current issues:

              Long, long ago, in a country not so far away (the U.S., late 19th century), composers made money by selling sheet music. But as the player piano became more common the publishing companies (and the composers, via royalties) started making additional money via the sale of paper music rolls for the

          • by thegarbz (1787294)

            If you found a way to make a fan that blows air out of potato chips, in principle that would not be patentable, because you just "stuck together" two existing things; fans and potato chips. It doesn't do anything novel.

            Funny you should mention fans given Dyson's recent innovations. Dyson had to massage the wording of the patent quite massively to get their patent for the Air-Multiplier fan, not surprising given how it was invented by Toshiba in the 80s [telegraph.co.uk]

            • by N Monkey (313423)

              If you found a way to make a fan that blows air out of potato chips, in principle that would not be patentable, because you just "stuck together" two existing things; fans and potato chips. It doesn't do anything novel.

              Funny you should mention fans given Dyson's recent innovations. Dyson had to massage the wording of the patent quite massively to get their patent for the Air-Multiplier fan, not surprising given how it was invented by Toshiba in the 80s [telegraph.co.uk]

              "Massaging"?? Having just read that news report, it seems they just needed to include other inventive features of the design in the patent, which probably just means the claims had to be 'narrowed' to include that feature.

              I don't see any issue with that. There is nothing wrong with patenting an improvement to an existing invention as long as it's non-trivial.

              • by thegarbz (1787294)

                "Massaging"?? Having just read that news report, it seems they just needed to include other inventive features of the design in the patent, which probably just means the claims had to be 'narrowed' to include that feature.

                I don't see any issue with that. There is nothing wrong with patenting an improvement to an existing invention as long as it's non-trivial.

                So you didn't read the patent then? No surprise, neither did the USA which is the only country which has upheld the validity of the "new" patent. He changed the aperture of the air outlet and the size of the fan.

                But then he did the same with all his other "inventions", like the cyclonic vacuum cleaner which was modelled after the cyclonic separator in the corner of his shop. The only difference being he had no idea what he was doing and went through 1000 prototypes instead of researching the well known equa

          • by chrismcb (983081)

            That is to say, it has to be or do something completely new. The point made by the court in OP's post is that it was not an invention because it was just two common things, stuck together.

            An awful lot of inventions came about by taking one or two common things and sticking them together. Of course part of the process is how you stick them together. I'm sure plenty of people thought about sticking an erase on the end of a pencil, but apparently this guy was the first to pull it off, and thus created something new. I don't see anything in the patent rules that says sticking a couple of common things together isn't new.
            As far as one click, I don't believe it was new, in that purchasing someth

        • by Dachannien (617929) on Sunday September 15, 2013 @10:16PM (#44859893)

          Well, most (not all) computer software related patents run maybe 20-25 pages double spaced, plus figures. As a printed issued patent, they're a good bit shorter than that page-wise. Very few go a thousand pages long, because it costs extra.

          The real problem in the courts is, as you say, that the judges have very little expertise in the relevant arts. Thus, each side presents its expert witnesses who say the exact opposite thing from each other (look hard enough and you can find an "expert" to support just about any argument you might have), and the judges are none the wiser.

          At the PTO, you're right that attorneys draft applications to intentionally confuse. Claims are drafted using vague language for the sake of vagueness, which results in claims that cannot practicably be fully searched. The objective is in many cases not to get a good patent, but just something with a patent number on it, because attorneys know that even a bad patent has value if nobody is willing to pony up the cash to challenge it. The PTO is hamstrung in addressing these issues by the case law, which says that vagueness is not the same as indefiniteness, and so we can't reject claims solely for being vague if the scope of the claims can be discerned.

          The only place we get any real sanity is (in sparing quantity) from the Supreme Court, who occasionally say things like, this is clearly an abstract concept, so it's not patentable, or this is just common sense, so it's obvious, or what have you. When this happens, it helps the PTO and the courts weed out some subset of the bad applications and patents. But out of all the patent cases litigated every year, maybe one or two of them make their way to the SCOTUS, so arriving at eventual sanity will take a long, long time.

        • by chrismcb (983081)

          The language is extremely formalized and very hard to read for untrained minds. And the issues are so specialized that the average judge would have to train several years in the particular field to understand what the invention is about.

          Every single patent that falls into this category should NOT receive a patent.
          Invention must also be:

          • Adequately described or enabled (for one of ordinary skill in the art to make and use the invention)
          • Claimed by the inventor in clear and definite terms

          Seems most patents today (well at least many software patents) are only readable by patent lawyers.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 15, 2013 @10:07PM (#44859849)

        "Today, the courts have become an apparatchik for the corporations, the banksters, the politicians, and the power that be."
        "Judges back then were chosen based on merits. Judges today are chosen based on who they know."

        Are you kidding me? Cronyism was way worse in the 19th century. And if you think corporations wield power now, then you'd crap your pants if you read any in-depth history of the gilded age.

        Patent lawyers know exactly what changed between then and now: the movement of all judicial patent appeals to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The court effectively specializes in a small number of cases, and has taken up the cause of making patent rights more robust. The chief judge of this court has actually written the book on patent law, and he's about as pro-patent as you can possibly get. This is conservative judicial activism at it's absolute finest.

        FWIW, there have been two ebbs in American patent law. The middle of the 19th century and the middle of 20th century were when patent rights were at their weakest. The highest point before the modern era was roughly around the time of the New Deal, when courts slowly became more deferential to Congress because of the turbulent times. This was when agricultural patents (e.g. on seeds and cultivars) came into force (i.e. Plant Patent Act of 1930).

        But the power of patents today is simply beyond all comprehension. The run up began in the 1970s, but didn't really get moving until the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit was created.

    • Me: I got a patent for connecting a man and a woman together to create a new item!

      Patent office: We are going to need evidence you actually put this idea into practice.

      Me: Damn!

  • Revised Summary (Score:5, Insightful)

    by cosm (1072588) <thecosm3@@@gmail...com> on Sunday September 15, 2013 @08:22PM (#44859319)
    In this modern day patents simply protect firms from competition.
    • by _merlin (160982) on Sunday September 15, 2013 @08:23PM (#44859327) Homepage Journal

      In this day and age everyone would just be giggling about a guy being called "hymen" of all things.

    • Re:Revised Summary (Score:5, Insightful)

      by tmorehen (2731547) on Sunday September 15, 2013 @08:42PM (#44859449)

      Patents have always protected firms from competition. That has always been part of their purpose. Another part of their purpose is to enable some one ordinarily skilled in the art to duplicate the invention when the patent expires. That's the trade-off that justifies patents, as opposed to treating inventions as trade secrets.

      What has changed is the definition of obviousness and consequently innovation. Now something is innovative if no one can point to prior art, notwithstanding that it may be obvious to the proverbial someone skilled in the art. Today, the pencil plus eraser would be patentable.

      Another thing that has changed is that patents have become so vague that they cannot be duplicated nor can anyone be certain what they cover. This is particularly a problem for business method and software patents.

      • Re:Revised Summary (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 15, 2013 @09:49PM (#44859783)

        Actually, I think even the idea of enabling people to duplicate inventions is not working anymore

        I read an article (can't remember where), saying that companies are actually FORBIDING their employees from checking the patent database, just in case they find out that another patent might perhaps cover something they are working on.

        This way, if a lawsuit occurs, they can claim ignorance of existing patents.

        But the downside is that people are actively avoiding looking into patent descriptions.

        • Re:Revised Summary (Score:4, Interesting)

          by 0123456 (636235) on Sunday September 15, 2013 @11:06PM (#44860113)

          I read an article (can't remember where), saying that companies are actually FORBIDING their employees from checking the patent database, just in case they find out that another patent might perhaps cover something they are working on.

          Yes. In my previous job, we weren't allowed to read patents for that reason.

        • Even without the incentive not to check for prior art in patents (triple damages for infringement if it can be proven that you knew you were infringing), have you ever read a modern patent? Trying to implement something from a patent is harder than inventing it from scratch. Compare this with patents a hundred years ago, where even with the linguistic drift it's usually possible to work out what they were describing and how it worked.
  • by djupedal (584558) on Sunday September 15, 2013 @08:25PM (#44859355)
    Into the hands of lobbyists, who paid for legislators to make it a pay-to-play activity.

    I'm working on a patented drinking fountain water filter that will be required by law for use in all public schools, hospitals and train stations - it will also be a law that they must be replaced every 30 days with a recycling fee paid to franchised non-profit companies staffed only by the homeless.
    • by hedwards (940851) on Sunday September 15, 2013 @08:48PM (#44859471)

      You're missing the point. A lot of this was unintentional. They made the USPTO run on fees that were charged for patents which gave the USPTO and incentive to rubber stamp patents while not receiving sufficient funding to cover the cost of having patent examiners that could do the investigation that they used to do.

      What needs to happen is that the USPTO needs to go back to being a government service the user fees need to be based upon the amount of time and energy it takes to deal with the application. And while we're at it, the duration of the patent period should go from the point where the first application is received to a reasonable period after that. For technology 7 years is likely more than adequate as a lot of that IP is no longer of value several years later.

      And obviously, anybody filing for a patent on software gets to volunteer to test the prototype rectal exam bots.

      • by whoever57 (658626) on Sunday September 15, 2013 @08:54PM (#44859499) Journal

        A lot of this was unintentional. They made the USPTO run on fees that were charged for patents which gave the USPTO and incentive to rubber stamp patents while not receiving sufficient funding to cover the cost of having patent examiners that could do the investigation that they used to do.

        What makes you think that the effects of those changes were unintentional?

        • by hedwards (940851)

          Because I'm familiar enough with the federal government to realize that they make a ton of mistakes due to the scope of their work. It's incredibly hard to predict what legislation is going to look like when passed and more likely the small government folks thought they could lower taxes for the rich by making the USPTO depend primarily on fees to conduct its affairs.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        You are incredibly wrong. Yes, the patent office makes a lot of money from fees. But that money is controlled by Congress, not the Patent Office. The patent office doesn't get all that money. Which is actually part of the problem. There are not enough examiners, causing huge backlogs. That's why patents get rubber stamped.

        But even that isn't the real problem. The real problem is the Federal Circuit, which was created specifically to handle patent appeals. The original idea was that the court would b

        • by hedwards (940851)

          Do you dispute the fact that the USPTO is funded primarily by fees these days? Because it means nothing who controls the purse strings to the issue. They get their money through application fees and if they start turning down a lot of the fees there's a risk of having fewer people trying to get patents.

          It's a conflict of interest for them to turn down patents when their funding is derived mainly from patent fees.

          And the court is another level of concern, but a lot of these things wouldn't get to the court i

      • by sribe (304414)

        What needs to happen is that the USPTO needs to go back to being a government service the user fees need to be based upon the amount of time and energy it takes to deal with the application.

        I've thought for a long time that the application fees should be increased 50%, with the 50% being rebated in the case of any patent that is issued, but retained for patents that are denied.

        • I've thought for a long time that the application fees should be increased 50%, with the 50% being rebated in the case of any patent that is issued, but retained for patents that are denied.

          No - what needs to be increased (in some cases dramatically) are the patent *maintenance* fees. At present, the patent office has 3 fee schedules, depending on the size of the patent-holding entitiy, but the *highest* of the three only costs the patent holder about $13,000 over the life of the patent. Not even pocket change for a major corporation.

          Substantially higher fees would tend to reduce the current tendency of companies to maintain large numbers of "trivial" patents (think "pinch to zoom" as an exa

      • by dweller_below (136040) on Monday September 16, 2013 @02:59AM (#44861043)

        You're missing the point. A lot of this was unintentional. They made the USPTO run on fees that were charged for patents which gave the USPTO and incentive to rubber stamp patents while not receiving sufficient funding to cover the cost of having patent examiners that could do the investigation that they used to do.

        I'd like to think that this mess is unintentional. But many of the recent changes to the USPTO appear to have optimized it to create lots of poor quality patents. I believe that we could reverse these changes. But, we would need to muster the political will to admit we have made mistakes. I have listed some of these obvious structural problems at: https://plus.google.com/b/101806809558932714222/101806809558932714222/about [google.com]

        I believe that the most serious problems with the structure of the USPTO are:

        • 1) More patents are not better than fewer patents. Patents are not Innovation. Patents are not Progress. Patents are simply grounds to file a lawsuit against an industry. More Patents are simply more grounds for more lawsuits. An occasional lawsuit might spur innovation. BUT LAWSUITS DO NOT PRODUCE. Lawsuits are parasitic on innovation and production. Reform must recognize that patents are dangerous monopolies. Reform must place hard limits on the number of patents.
        • 2) Running the US Patent Office as a cost-recovery operation is a mistake. The US Patent Office is a very small, but critical component of the US economy. It's purpose was "..to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.." (US Constitution Article One, Section 8(8).) But, once the USPTO started to become completely cost recovery, (See: Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990, Title X, Subtitle B), that primary goal became overshadowed by the more pressing goal of securing funding via patent fees. The primary effect of cost recovery has been to promote the collection of patent fees. Reform is painful, but simple. Admit cost recovery is a failed experiment. Revert the funding model to the model used for the first 200 years. The USPTO must be centrally funded by the US government. Any collected fees should be returned to the US Government.
        • 3) It is a mistake to organize the US Patent Office to create economic incentives to grant poor patents. Currently most of the revenue of the US Patent Office comes from GRANTING patents. See the USPTO FY 2013 President's Budget page 37: www.uspto.gov/about/stratplan/budget/fy13pbr.pdf "..More than half of all patent fee collections are from issue and maintenance fees, which essentially subsidize examination activities." A recent study by the Richmond School of Law found that the USPTO's actual grant rate is currently running at about 89%. In 2001, it was as high as 99%. See http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2225781 [ssrn.com] page 9. In 2001, it didn't matter if an application was overbroad, obvious, trivial, a duplicate, or unreasonable, they ALL got granted. Things haven't improved much since then. Reform could come in many forms, but the simplest and most reliable would be to eliminate and unify the Patent office fees into a single filing fee. This fee would provide no guarantee of receiving a patent, only a guarantee that your patent would be considered. This would free the Patent Office to be able to deny poor patents. The filing fee should be high enough to discourage spurious patent applications.
        • 4) Scaling up the Patent Office to produce more poor quality patents is a mistake. Currently, we expand the number of patent examiners based on demand. See the USPTO FY 2013 President's Budget, page 60, Gap Assessment: "Meeting this commitment assumes efficiency improvements brought about by reengineering many USPTO management and operational processes (e.g., the patent examination process) and systems, and hiring about 3,00
        • by gl4ss (559668)

          patents nowadays are also explicitly on purpose worded so that it's not easy(or even possible) to create implementation from the patent text & illustrations.

    • by KreAture (105311)
      I think it should be staffed only by the unemployed!
  • Lawyers (Score:4, Funny)

    by mtrachtenberg (67780) on Sunday September 15, 2013 @08:28PM (#44859369) Homepage

    Lawyers and lobbyists have come a long way since 1858; with enough lawyers and lobbyists today, ScrewCorp could patent a pencil colored yellow.

  • He who has the gold makes the rule.

    I doubt that it was different back then, only that fewer companies saw the value in rigging the patent system and claiming them like claiming a gold mine. It's a pretty "advanced" technique and requires a lot of money backing you.

    At least some corporation, preferably a couple thereof.

  • In this modern day do patents promote innovation, or simply protect firms from competition?

    Asking the question is giving the answer. Wealthy firms had enough lawyers to kink the law by landmark rulings. The fact that the People cannot get this fixed by the legislator after decades is a hint that democracy is sick

    • by hedwards (940851)

      No, the reason why this isn't being fixed is that a significant number of voters vote for politicians that run on a platform that includes deregulation and freeing the market of even modest restraints on bad behavior. And are quite vocal in shouting down anybody that suggests even modest reforms as being elitists and pushing for a totalitarian, nanny state.

      The main problem with democracy is that it depends upon the voters actually being interested in voting for people that represent their best interests. As

      • by manu0601 (2221348)

        No, the reason why this isn't being fixed is that a significant number of voters vote for politicians that run on a platform that includes deregulation and freeing the market of even modest restraints on bad behavior.

        US federal elections are skewed in favor of a bipartisan system. And when people have to choose between only two candidates, they have no ability to weight on most topics. If the two big parties agree on deregulation, you have no opportunity to cast your vote on it. Sick democracy.

      • by PPH (736903)

        politicians that run on a platform that includes deregulation and freeing the market of even modest restraints on bad behavior.

        A condition of deregulation would be one without patents. Certainly not one promoted by corporate interests. For each issue, its always a matter of following the money to see whether the decision will be pro or anti regulation.

        As long as one party routinely votes against the self interests of their own voters,

        The party works for its financial supporters. Voters are a minor inconvenience in that they have to be manipulated to keep the party in power. In Soviet Russia, they used the term 'useful idiots' for such supporters of the cause.

      • If it (a patent) were held in perpetuity, it would lead to the opposite of the very principle on which it is based: it would lead, not to the earned reward of achievement, but to the unearned support of parasitism. It would become a cumulative lien on the production of unborn generations, which would ultimately paralyze them. Consider what would happen if, in producing an automobile, we had to pay royalties to the descendants of all the inventors involved, starting with the inventor of the wheel and on up. Apart from the impossibility of keeping such records, consider the accidental status of such descendants and the unreality of their unearned claims.

        -- Ayn Rand

        Just pointing out you don't know shit about the people you're bitching about. At least understand your opponents point of view before you start spouting off nonsense.

      • by 0111 1110 (518466)

        No, the reason why this isn't being fixed is that a significant number of voters vote for politicians that run on a platform that includes deregulation and freeing the market of even modest restraints on bad behavior.

        Exactly. This is why we all need to vote Libertarian. So that the entire corrupted patent system can be shut down. Then we can get started on reducing copyrights to no more than 5 years. That was what you intended, right? Because of course patents are a government interference in the free market, right? Preventing competition is what it's all about.

        • Understand that a "market" in the economic sense is defined as a set of rules that governs trade, the most basic of those rules is property rights. What the "free" bit means is that nobody is excluded by the rules, anyone can "play" the market. Now go back and read your own post using those definitions.

          The "free" bit does not mean "free of regulation" (as Fox news would have you believe), such an interpretation is an oxymoron when you use the proper definition of "market".
          • by khallow (566160)
            Just because some sort of regulation is necessary to the existence of free markets, doesn't mean such regulation doesn't usually inhibit trading on such markets. There really is a huge problem with government interference in these things.

            For example, a classic case is interference with market crashes and the like. Often there are large investing opportunities associated with such crashes and so a market could sort this out on their own, while transferring wealth from poor traders to better ones. But gove
  • by oldhack (1037484) on Sunday September 15, 2013 @08:57PM (#44859517)

    "Service economy" with IP fantasy led to this bullshit world for the West and other developed countries.

    And it would. Bureaucratic, parasitic, loophole-exploiting endeavors like lawyering, bankering, lobbying are most rewarded.

    The West is rotting from within.

  • Skewed perspective (Score:5, Informative)

    by 10101001 10101001 (732688) on Sunday September 15, 2013 @09:00PM (#44859533) Journal

    Oh where do I begin to describe the skewed perspective of this article. It seems clear the author had recently read the book "The Pencil" and thought they could write up a little tidbit about it with patents. But, when you start doing the math, it really falls through. The "invention" was created in 1858. The supreme court ruling about the patent came in 1875, nearly 20 years later (so at the point where the patent would have nearly expired anyways). Meanwhile, it's not really at all clear that the whole eraser-on-pencil really took off on its own. It sounds like, instead, some American companies liked the idea (perhaps to match parity with said investor, Joseph Reckendorfer) and started producing such pencils. Meanwhile, some 60+ years later and Europe still wasn't making such pencils (well, not commonly enough, anyways).

    Oh, and the best part is the silly:

    So does our pencil say something about us as a people? A writer for a 1922 issue of American Stationer and Office Outfitter thought so: “Throughout Europe, the rubber-tipped pencil is practically unknown,” they wrote. “It may be that foreigners consider themselves less apt to make mistakes than the happy-go-lucky Americans.”

    Or it could be that, oh, Europeans were still using their separate erasers and perhaps snarkily mocking the Americans for throwing away tons of perfectly good erasers just for the convenience of having one glued to the end of their pencil. Meanwhile, the more honest truth is probably the more simple that European pencil manufacturers probably didn't think there much demand and the vast majority of people weren't going to pay a premium to import the stupid things In the end, wide scale adoption would have more to do with there being only a few manufacturers which made up the effective industry in the area and with a majority all deciding something, whatever it was, was a good enough idea and offering the X + Y product as either a replacement for X or as a premium version of X, wide side adoption basically inherently happened. But even today, plenty of places sell pencils without erasers. And there's separate eraser heads you can pull off and reuse until they're heavily wore out (although those are still mighty wasteful as usually the base is pretty unusable for erasing.

    So, now with that, I can happily say my comment is about as much a rambling little conjecture as the article.

    • by tlambert (566799)

      Oh where do I begin to describe the skewed perspective of this article. It seems clear the author had recently read the book "The Pencil" and thought they could write up a little tidbit about it with patents. But, when you start doing the math, it really falls through. The "invention" was created in 1858. The supreme court ruling about the patent came in 1875, nearly 20 years later (so at the point where the patent would have nearly expired anyways).

      It was either expired (patent term was 14 years from date of filing), or within a year of expiring (an additional filing for a 7 year extension was permitted). No info as to whether an extension was filed for this guy. This is because it fell under the purview of the Patent Act of 1836.

      Ironically, during the 1890 depression, and again during the great depression, people in general held a dim view of patents, as they more or less do today, so by that measure, are we in a depression?
      http://en.wikipedia.org/w [wikipedia.org]

    • by Sarten-X (1102295)

      Sadly devoid of mod points, but I would like you to know I appreciate your perspective. Patent articles on Slashdot can be safely assumed to be trolling. There's a critical mass of patent-haters on the site that ensures every story casting patents in a negative light gets promoted to the front page, with no concern for relevance or factual accuracy.

      • Yes, patents are hard to read now. We've spent the last few centuries moving away from the idea that laws were general guidelines (with specific appeals to be p
    • by dkf (304284)

      Meanwhile, some 60+ years later and Europe still wasn't making such pencils (well, not commonly enough, anyways).

      In my experience (at school, long ago) a separate eraser was better because it did a better job of erasing by virtue of allowing you to use a broader surface for erasing. Convenience is all very well, but I preferred the "convenience" of being able to actually erase pencil markings from the page.

  • In this modern day do patents promote innovation, or simply protect firms from competition?

    Don't you just love rhetorical questions?

  • Strategic Warfare (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Somebody Is Using My (985418) on Sunday September 15, 2013 @09:08PM (#44859583) Homepage

    The shift in policy is an intentional, if unwritten, strategy intended to keep America a competitive force in the world's economy.

    In the past, America's power was based on its vast, untapped resources; steel, oil, cotton, grain, whatever - we had it and could rip it out of the ground cheaply. We sold these resources to the world and became rich. But these days other developing nations are willing to sell their resources far beyond what we can afford, and we can no longer depend on those resources as the primary engine of our economy.

    Later, America's strength came from its industry; our factories produced high-quality goods in vast quantities. And we became rich again (well, even richer). But today, we've sold the technology to poorer nations, and their citizens are willing to work for wages that would starve our own people. So America can no longer depend on its industry to sustain it.

    So instead, we've turned to our ingenuity and inventiveness as a way to ensure our dominance; our patents, our copyrights, our trademarks. We've hitched our wagon to the idea that our "intellectual property" will keep us a prominent force on the world stage. Of course, an idea is worthless unless somebody is willing to put it to use (the greatest movie in the world won't bring in a cent unless you get people to pay you to watch it). So we make all our ideas available to the world... for a price. And we have greatly bolstered our laws - and made clear our willingness to use force to defend those laws - to ensure that OUR ideas are not used without our receiving adequate recompense.

    Except great ideas - the ones that bring in great wads of cash - are difficult to come by (Sturgeon's Law applies with ideas too) and while inspiration can be encouraged, it cannot be forced. So rather than depend on those rare strokes of genius, we ensure that even our less-stellar conceptions are protected the same way as the truly inspired ideas. Patents are increasingly granted on the most insignificant, inconsequential and mundane ideas because it brings in the money.

    This is not to say there is some overreaching planned conspiracy; there was never a shadowy group of power-brokers chortling in some dark room as they moved the nation onto this new path. But America has always followed the path of money, and right now the big money is in intellectual property. Keeping its businesses strong makes strategic sense. Thus, we see an increased strengthening of certain laws (or weakening of others) to protect the interests of those businesses.

    That's why there is little incentive to revamp the patent system, or bring copyright back down to sensible terms. It's why the American government is pushing so hard to enforce its copyright laws in other countries. It's why there is such a concern about copyright violations and why the Internet scares the people in power so much. American hegemony, they believe, is directly tied to how much intellectual property it owns, and how well it is protected.

    • by whoever57 (658626)

      The shift in policy is an intentional, if unwritten, strategy intended to keep America a competitive force in the world's economy.

      That may have been thhe original intent, but both technology and money have caused it to fail at its intent.

      Patents put US-based web/cloud services at a disadvantage.

      The effect of many patents is to prevent competition, not to stimulate innovation. In other words, the effect is to concentrate wealth. Money and power have brought about this subversion.

      I would like someo

    • by stenvar (2789879)

      So instead, we've turned to our ingenuity and inventiveness as a way to ensure our dominance; our patents, our copyrights, our trademarks. We've hitched our wagon to the idea that our "intellectual property" will keep us a prominent force on the world stage.

      Keep in mind that the patent and copyright systems originated in Europe and Europe used to exert strong pressure on the US to adopt their systems. It wasn't until the 1970's that the US finally gave in in copyrights. So, this isn't some kind of nefarious

  • How appropriate is it that a guy named Hymen invented something with a phallic shape?

  • Easy: Incentives (Score:4, Interesting)

    by dcollins (135727) on Sunday September 15, 2013 @10:30PM (#44859961) Homepage

    In 1990, the "everything runs better as a free market" doctrine wiped out government funding of the patent office, declaring that it would be fully funded by applicant fees from then on. (In fact, since that time Congress withholds some percentage of payments, so it's even more under-funded.) So the office doesn't work as a filter to defend a precious monopoly right, instead it's incentivized to make as many applicants happy as possible, since that's where all their money comes from. Result is a tidal wave of poorly examined patents that no one has time or resources to take court. (And yet: also an enormous and growing backlog of yet-unexamined patents). Pretty similar to how they've bent over the U.S. Post Office.

    Step 1: Defund core government agency, Step 2: Complain about how government doesn't work, Step 3: Profit (for some private allied company).

    http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/cpquery/?&sid=cp109OaGul&r_n=hr372.109&dbname=cp109&&sel=TOC_11043& [loc.gov]

    • by the eric conspiracy (20178) on Sunday September 15, 2013 @11:05PM (#44860107)

      The reason we have such crap patents right now is the bumbling fumbling stumbling Congress.

      In 1982, in order to address various problems with the patent rulings being inconsistent they established the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

      This court is a Frankenstein's monster. It has created a whole new body of law by allowing such insanity as business process patents. This law has created an atmosphere so favorable to applicants and their assigns that every life-form that can croak out an 'idea' in front of a patent attorney has a chance to become an inventor.

      Of course the result of this is the patent office is deluged with applications. THE HAVE NO CHANCE to process all these applications in a moderate fashion. So they are forced to take the attitude 'approve the application and let the Courts sort it out'.

      That only encourages the greedy to make more garbage applications.

      The Patent Office fee system was a clumsy and ineffective attempt to apply brakes to this runaway train by increasing the cost of applying and maintaining patents. You might as well try to piss upwind into a hurricane.

      Right now the US Patent System is a great hindrance to innovation and economic growth in America. Will it get fixed? There is a good chance it will, because stuff like patent trolling is hurting even the big companies.

  • by 2fuf (993808)

    HYMEN LIPman put a rubber PLUG into the WOOD SHAFT of a PENCIL.

  • ...if he had invented a pencil eraser over the Internet
  • In the case of the pencil and the eraser, I think anyone can consider it was an obvious thing to do.

    But what about all this complex wizardry in the computer world? What patent examiner really understands what is going on to say with sufficient confidence that such and such isn't innovative or otherwise worthy of a patent? That's why patent applications designed merely to confuse patent examiners get granted with such regularity.

    It's like having a regular joe sit in on a surgery and critique the doctors perf

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