For the half-year to 31 December 2014, the IPKat's regular team is supplemented by contributions from guest bloggers Rebecca Gulbul, Lucas Michels and Marie-Andrée Weiss.

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Thursday, 9 February 2012

"Why has America stopped inventing?" or "It's not just Kats that rant"

A very busy little book buzzed into this Kat's life a few days ago.  It's called Why Has America Stopped Inventing? and its author is an energetic, indeed frenetic patent attorney by the name of Darin Gibby (his own website is here; his web page with Kilpatrick Townsend is here). Darin is not one of those people who likes to keep his readers waiting to find out what he's trying to tell them. His message is loud and clear. As this book's website says:
"Today, Americans invent less than half of what they did a century and a half ago [this assertion might seem a trifle surprising to readers and to compilers of WIPO statistics; it also raises interesting issues as to what constitutes an invention ...],  and the question is why? The answer may well be found in how America’s patent system treated the likes of Sam Colt, Samuel Morse, Charles Goodyear, Isaac Singer and the Wright Brothers".
At this point the reader will already have guessed that Darin is a man with a mission. If further proof were needed, his publicity material continues:
"America loves innovation and the can-do spirit that made this country what it is -- a world leader in self-government, industry and technology, and pop culture. Everything about America has at one point or another been an experiment and a leap of faith. And one such experiment --upon which all others depend for success [Now, that is a whopping great assertion with which one may wish to take issue] -- is the U.S. Patent System. 
Why Has America Stopped Inventing? takes a close look at why this experiment appears to be failing, at why America has all but stopped inventing. Our belief that we are the most innovative people on earth is mistaken. The hard cold numbers suggest that American innovators are losing their edge. Statistics show that today we invent less than half of what our counterparts did a century and a half ago [Is it the IPKat's imagination, or are statisticians the only people who never start sentences with the words "Statistics show ..."?]. While it's true that the world's cities are filled with American technology and gadgets like smart phones and athletic shoes, we've been lulled into thinking that we remain as inventive as ever, if not more so.

But that's just not so. Look around: Where are the groundbreaking inventions comparable to those from the Industrial Revolution? It's unbelievable (and unforgivable) that we've been using the same mode of transportation for over a century. And why are we still using coal and gasoline as our major energy sources, choking our cities with pollutants? [Well, that's an easy one -- it's because there are lots of folk out there who have a vested interest in coal and gasoline, including our governments and our pension funds] We've evolved from the steam engine [The ancient Greeks had Hero's Engine around 2,000 years ago, but it wasn't economically viable, what with all those slaves to do the work], the automobile and the airplane to what? Why aren't we driving automobiles that run on hydrogen extracted from ordinary tap water? Why are we giving a trillion dollars every year to hostile foreign nations for imported oil [Because American motorists aren't willing to pay for the cost of its possible replacements?] when we have the inventive talent in America to solve the nation's energy crisis?

We don't have these desperately needed technologies because regular Americans have given up on inventing [Really? Don't even some so-called trolls have a positive commitment to inventing? What would Intellectual Ventures have to say about this, Merpel wonders]. Their innovative spirit has been snuffed out...and Why Has America Stopped Inventing? explains why by comparing the experiences of America's most successful 19th century inventors with those of today. To do so, the book follows Jefferson refusing to waste any more weekends examining patent applications, Whitney being robbed of his fortune while the South's wealth exploded, the patent models that kept British soldiers from burning Washington's last-standing federal building, the formation of Lincoln's cabinet, and Selden crippling the entire U.S. Auto Industry. It also tells the story of the Wright brother's airplane monopoly, the Colt revolver's role in the Mexican American War, the Sewing Machine wars, the last six months of Daniel Webster's life, and the controversy behind the Bell telephone patent".
Merpel wonders if you really have to be American, paranoid and gullible if you are going to enjoy this book to the full -- the sort of person who is stirred into inventiveness by the patriotic naming of the America Invents Act and who takes great pride in the Great American Dream. It doesn't pretend to be a work of scholarship, but rather a work of provocation. The author knows a good yarn when he sees one and tells it to good effect.  Apart from the book's content, the format is somewhat jarring too. Large print, small pages and narrow margins mean that the words positively shout at the reader, too.

This Kat agrees with this but he sees the point of a book like this if, for America, you substitute Europe -- or perhaps any other continent.  In the new and increasingly harmonised, homogenised and pasteurised Europe, many of the EU's half a billion people -- twice the number in the US -- are wallowing in a quagmire of apathy, lack of personal commitment, loss of national identity, remoteness of government and decision-making and, worst of all, the erosion of any sort of moral or social compass by which to steer their lives.  In many respects we are not individuals any more; we do not matter as people. We have become consumers, aggregated stake-holders and impotent pawns in a game with more rules than players.  In these circumstances, we all need a clarion call to wake up and do something, perhaps even something inventive which will alleviate our lot, and even something as rough and unsophisticated as a kick in the pants -- or a book called Why Has Europe Stopped Inventing? -- might have the desired effect.

Darin is also a blogger and a patent applicant

Bibliographic data: paperback, viii + 241 pages. ISBN 978 1 61448 048 8. Rupture factor: low. Book's web page here.

4 comments:

Hans Sachs said...

It's obvious, so to speak. They need to move the USTPO to the Eastern District of Texas so that the Court there can more quickly rule in favor of obviously invalid patents that are obvious. The examiners could fill up the jury pool.

However, even that Court occasionally gets it right, as they did today in the Eolas case.

More patents doth not make for more "real"invention.

Simply makes for more patent agents, attorneys, lawyers and trolls.

It's the quality, stupid!

Mark Summerfield said...

Why not just write a book called Why has humankind stopped inventing? and be done with it?

I am unaware of any country that is still producing the kinds of iconic inventors that Gibby eulogises (assuming that they ever did - the influence of revisionism and false nostalgia is no doubt a substantial topic in itself).

What if the reason is simply that the world, and the economic circumstances of its nations and their peoples, has changed? If so, then no amount of proselytising will bring about a return to a (possibly romanticised) past.

Graham Barker said...

I doubt I’ll read the book because anyone looking at invention only through the prism of patenting is unlikely ever to see a clear picture. I’m regularly asked ‘How many inventors are there in the UK?’ and can only answer ‘I have absolutely no idea’, because statistics show that there are no reliable statistics. Invention is everywhere, though it’s plausible that there will be more of it in countries where enterprise is seen as a way out of hardship.

But the patent system does have a lot to answer for. It’s money driven and Kafkaesque, and increasingly unfit for purpose IF its purpose is to stimulate innovation and not just stengthen the market dominance of big companies. Perhaps there’s a book waiting to be written called ‘Why does anyone bother inventing at all?’

Anonymous said...

It reminds me of a nice little line from the US mobster series "The Sopranos", when Uncle Junior says, "I got Feds so far up my a** that I can taste Brylcreem!" This to me summarises the Americans' position vis-à-vis themselves. In spite of the First Amendment, the US does in fact have an Established Religion - itself. The previous political apparatchik who ran the USPTO used to say that the US patent system was the envy of the world. I suspect that this was a classic case of redefinition (it couldn't be torture, because "torture" means 90% killed, whereas we only half-killed him),and the "laughing stock" was redefined as "envy".

I can't wait to see what sort of a mess they make of post-grant review (opposition).Mind you, they're insuring themselves by setting very high fees: http://www.patentlyo.com/patent/2012/02/new-post-grant-options-and-associated-proposed-fees.html

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