Patents: Innovation Help or Hindrance?
I think most Americans’ attitudes about inventions are unchanged from the 1940 movie, Edison, the Man, starring Spencer Tracy. I saw that movie many years back and it’s pretty much what you would expect: Edison is portrayed as part visionary, part tinkerer, part business-wizard, part ascetic (for his “1% inspiration, 99% perspiration” philosophy), and all dedicated to the betterment of mankind. Edison’s actual story was more complicated than that, but the core idea in the movie was correct: Inventions help us all.
Inventions helping us all is why we have patents. Without protection for an idea, the return on making an invention would be lowered, and so we’d get fewer inventions than we otherwise would. The framers of the US Constitution thought this such an important concern that they dedicated a section to patents and copyrights.
From Edison’s time, what have we come to? As the New York Times describes, Apple Now Owns the Page Turn; they have been awarded a design patent for a display screen animation of a turning page, like so:
Note that this is a design patent. This type of patent essentially protects how something looks. There’s no underlying software advance here, something that makes the page-turning animation better, faster, more page-turny or whatever. The protection is just for the appearance of turning a page on a display screen.
This just doesn’t make sense to me. Page turning has been an everyday activity since … I was going to say since Gutenberg, but that may be overstating it. Suffice to say people have been turning pages since long before display screens and information technology. Is now every on-screen representation of the physical world patentable? For example there are other “book technologies” other than the codex, such as the scroll. Could I patent an animated rolling scroll? Of course you are probably “scrolling” this display right now, but how about if I crafted some displayed wooden rollers at top and bottom, and I required your finger or mouse to “turn” the displayed wooden spindle? Should that be patentable?
I say, No. Now design patents are kind of a special thing, but their main intent is to preserve distinctive looks that identify products to the public – think of the Coca-Cola bottle shape or Oakley Sunglasses. Now let’s say the Apple page-turn appeared on Kindle, or on an Android tablet. Would that effect somehow confuse me I was using an iPad? Of course not. Nor would it lead me to an assumption of quality – any consumer knows that a device capable of running Angry Birds is capable of an animated page turn.
Seems like obsessive/defensive patent disorder to me. Certainly there are patents to things that deserve to be protected – there probably would be no Google without the patent on PageRank, for example. But as you can see here, patents are being filed at more than 5 times the rate they were in the 1980s. Are we 5 times smarter, more innovative? I don’t think so. Somehow we need to stop wasting all this defensive effort and channel it into actual innovation.
BTW, I see the phrase “obsessive/defensive patent disorder” can’t be found on Google. I hereby declare “obsessive/defensive patent disorder” to be © 2012, Fernando Salazar. So there.