Wednesday, April 20, 2005

It's not the idea

I had a chance this afternoon to see one of my favorite writers and thinks, George Gilder.  He came to Microsoft to speak.  Anyway, he said something very interesting.  He stated than patents are not all that valuable because they are open.  Usually having the idea is not worth much until someone can reduce it to practice.  An example he used was that of the microprocessor.  This was something many people had the idea of doing.  It wasn't terribly useful to have that idea until someone figured out to actually manufacture such a beast.  Once that happened, the idea became valuable.  This knowledge about how to do something is what he calls a "latent."  This is an interesting idea and it has, I think, two implications:

  1. Companies which are obsessed by patents may be going down the wrong path.  The next Microsoft or Intel won't come from having the right patents but rather having the right latents.
  2. The USPTO should look very critically at "idea" patents.  If something is an actual mechanism of creating something (a latent which is being made open), a patent may be warranted.  If, on the other hand, this is an idea before its time, it should be rejected.  The only purpose the latter can have is to stop someone who has an idea about *how* to do it from doing it.  Imagine someone patenting the idea of the microprocessor.  It would have made it impossible for companies like Intel to have done what they did.

George Gilder works at the Discovery Institute.  His newest book is called the Silicon Eye.


  1. At the USPTO website here:

    it clearly that states that "any person who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent”.

    It clearly says that a patent cannot be obtained upon a mere idea or suggestion.

    From what I understand I probably could not patent that idea that we are going to use a special kind of clothing material in Mars using the material XXXXX until I actual have a sample and can prove it is useful idea. The page makes for an interesting read because it defines useful and also talks about how abstract ideas are not subject to patents.

  2. I've seen a lot coming through the patent office lately that looks a lot more like an idea than a true machine or mechanism. This may be limited to the world of software patents but at least in that case, it is being abused as such. If they were true inventions and not merely ideas, they couldn't be so easily morphed to be something they were not originally. Instead you get people patenting basic building blocks like delivering a product digitally for money or something. If it is a specific mechanism for doing so, I'm fine with that. When it then morphs to suing everyone doing electronic software distribution, that's crazy.

    Another example is the Sony rumble-pack lawsuit recently. Sony didn't use the same mechanism as Immersion, just the same idea.

    I won't even start on the Eolas patent.

  3. Yes, it is becoming a problem when industry giants leverage their position and power to either crush new technologies/invention or create a monopoly over ideas.

    What I would like to see is more discretion on part of USPTO to not grant patents which are too broad and do not allow for better products and ideas. For example: if someone patents a method to manufacture a processor then it should be a very specific patent. Anyone else using other methods/technology to create a better microprocessor should be allowed that freedom. Did Mr.Gilder shed any light into this area?

  4. No, Gilder didn't talk about that. He stated the initial idea but didn't (in this talk) apply it a whole lot.

    I think you look wrongly at the industry giants. Each of the (in my opinion wrongly issued) patents above were owned by and lawsuits brought on behalf of relatively small companies. Currently, the abuse of the patent system is coming more from small companies than big ones. I think it is mutually assured destruction that stops the big companies from doing anything.