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Friday, 5 July 2013

The Patent Legacy of the Computer Mouse

Given its long evolutionary history, it is curious that the mouse has also played a prominent role in the recent history of technology. For those of you who like the four-legged creature more or less intact, there is the famous Harvard mouse and the patent issues that it raised, here. But far more prevalent and well-known is the hand-activated device that has served hundreds of millions of users in operating their computer devices. Known simply as "the mouse", it has become one of the most wide-spread items of computer software ever.

The computer mouse noted a sad milestone earlier this week, with the death of Douglas Engelbart at the age of 88. Engelbart may not have been a household name (though this Kat, always on the lookout for mice and their progenitors, was familiar with it), but he was an early computer pioneer and visionary best known for U.S. patent no. 3,541,541, applied for in 1967 and granted in 1970, entitled "X-Y Position Indicator for a Display System", here, known far and wide as "the mouse." It was Engelbart who saw early that the inside of computer could be efficiently operated by means of an external device. This insight was part of his more general world-view, whereby he committed himself to finding better ways to enable people to work together in a digital environment (what he called "augmenting human intellect"). So strong was his belief in this vision that he was apparently ill at ease with the personal computer, at least in its early stages, because the device deflected the focus from collaboration to individual use.

Kat readers are invited to read more about Engelbart and his contributions to the way that we all use computers here and here. What this Kat wishes to focus on are the commercial aspects of Engelbart's invention. Thus, guardian.co.uk yesterday brought the following AP report: "Engelbart conceived the computer mouse so early in the evolution of computers that he and his colleagues did not profit much from it. The mouse patent had a 17-year life span, allowing the technology to pass into the public domain in 1987. That prevented Engelbart from collecting royalties on the mouse when it was in its widest use. At least a billion have been sold since the mid-1980s." Wikipedia, here, provides a somewhat different view of the events. It writes that "Engelbart never received any royalties from his mouse invention. During an interview, he says 'SRI [Stanford Research Institute, Engelbart's employer and the assignee of the invention] patented  the mouse, but they really had no idea of its value. Some years later it was learned that they had licensed it to Apple Computer for something like $40,000'".

Under both accounts, neither the inventor nor his employee enjoyed much direct material benefit from the invention. Instead, Engelbart's reward context seemed to lie in a quite different plane. As stated by the CEO of SRI International, Engelbart "brought tremendous value to society. We will miss his genius, warmth and charm. Doug's legacy is immense. Anyone in the world who uses a mouse or enjoys the productive benefits of a personal computer is indebted to him."

All of this may be well and good, but this Kat cannot help but wonder whether there is something in the patent incentive and reward system that is a bit amiss here. The circumstances surrounding the inventor's failure to exploit the mouse invention are not of the David Teece variety, here, which focuses on the question of why the innovator seldom is the person who successfully commercializes the product. The answer to that apparent conundrum is that there is a different set of capabilities required if a patented invention is to be marketed successfully (what Teece calls "complementary assets"). Here, however, no one seems to have appropriated much value from the patented invention itself. It was not the case that SRI "had no idea of the value" of the invention, but rather that the invention was simply too far ahead of the marketplace to be reasonably exploited by anyone during the life of the patent. Don't get this Kat wrong, he did find any report that expressed regret on the part of those involved that the patented invention did not enjoy commercial success. Still, something seems, well, "unfair" here.

Permit this Kat to propose a counterfactual. Suppose that SRI had sold its rights in the patent to ABC, and immediately thereafter IBM launched its PC product, including a mouse device, to great success. ABC then sought to extract a modest royalty from all sales of the mouse, which were growing at an exponential rate, splitting the royalty with SRI, which in turn shared some of its newly found income with the inventor. Given the current debate about "patent trolls", which result is a better outcome for the patent system—the contribution to the public domain with little remuneration to the inventor and his employer, or the revenue split between ABC, the inventor and his employer? This Kat is not certain that there is a simple answer.

A Kat question — without peeking, why was the device named a "mouse"?

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Looks like a case for old UK law's extension on the grounds of inadequate remuneration - up to 10 years' extension was possible. The best case for comparison was Fairey Aviation's Patent, covering the droop snoot of the Concorde. It was given the full 10-year maximum on the grounds that the technology was undoubtedly useful, but ahead of its time - and Fairey had tried hard to market it, unlike, Philips (the Dutch one) which had brought the Stirling engine to the borders ot practicality, but really hadn't bothered to push it.

Anonymous said...

Why is it called a mouse? A forward-looking tribute to John Steinbeck, of course.

Michael Risch said...

This post hits the nail on the head of the patent troll debate. If you set aside crappy patents (of which there are a lot), the question is a difficult one to answer.

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