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Patents Your Rights Online

The Sewing Machine War 136

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

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  • by 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.

  • 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.

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

    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 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.

  • Not really (Score:4, Interesting)

    by WindBourne ( 631190 ) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @02:54PM (#27776893) Journal
    once they feel that they own industry, they will push a new form of IP.
  • 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.

  • Another example (Score:4, Interesting)

    by nsayer ( 86181 ) <nsayer@@@kfu...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.

  • by Absolut187 ( 816431 ) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @03:07PM (#27777085) Homepage

    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 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 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.)

  • by Geof ( 153857 ) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @03:35PM (#27777471) Homepage

    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 high returns on their investment. Over time use of the technology would spread, and competition would force down margins. In order to start the cycle anew and again achieve a high returns, capitalists had to seek out new innovations. Thus it is capital's search for profits that drives and is enabled by innovation. This is creative destruction: constant innovation - discarding the old in favor of the new - in search of profits.

    In this model, there is no need to fence off ideas to encourage innovation. Monopoly protection would do quite the opposite: by shielding profits from market competition, it frees capital from the need to pursue new ideas and technologies.

  • Re:Getting to it (Score:1, Interesting)

    by rattaroaz ( 1491445 ) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @03:47PM (#27777645)
    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 now we do. It sounded like a mess then, and now it's a really big mess. Sort of like comparing 1 apple to 50,000 apples.
  • by jank1887 ( 815982 ) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @03:57PM (#27777789)
    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 Absolut187 ( 816431 ) on Thursday April 30, 2009 @04:14PM (#27777985) Homepage

    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.

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