The Dromedary effect: design by committee and the Unitary Patent Hump

At the end of July, Katfriend Gary Moss (a solicitor and a partner in EIP when he's not producing tidbits for this weblog) was a speaker at the annual High Tech Summit which takes place at the Center for Advanced Research into Intellectual Property (CASRIP) at the University of Washington, Seattle. Gary was on a panel discussing the Unitary Patent and its impact [Gosh, says Merpel, they are even discussing European patent issues on the shores of the Pacific. And to think it's only a short while ago that we Europeans all had our noses buried in the American Invents Act. How very interested we are in each other's affairs in this ever-shrinking, not-quite-joined-up world!]  Gary posed the question "Is the Unitary Patent Court (UPC) a horse designed by a committee?" This harks back to the famous saying often attributed to motor car designer Sir Alec Issigonis that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. This Kat considers that Gary may have a point -- save for one thing; this oft-quoted bon mot implies that the members of the committee are well-intentioned but that hidden forces push them into coming up with something which is sub-optimal. However, having read the very inciteful [the IPKat thinks Gary means "insightful" but Merpel, who knows better, says "inciteful" is right] article recently written by Dr Ingve Björn Stjerna (here), it would appear that the resulting camel (a.k.a. the UPC) was a deliberate piece of legislative engineering by the Commission and its Rapporteurs.

"I laugh at you;
so does my camel!"
Nevertheless Gary thought he would share with us the fact that, in the course of his researches, he came across the illustration on the right which neatly encapsulates where we have now got to -- and the apparent attitude of those who are responsible. Perhaps it can be adopted as the UPC's emblem .  Gary's researches also led him to this little gem on Wikipedia under "Design by Committtee".
"The term is used to refer to suboptimal traits that such a process may produce as a result of having to compromise between the requirements and viewpoints of the participants, particularly in the presence of poor leadership or poor technical knowledge, such as needless complexity, internal inconsistency, logical flaws, banality, and the lack of a unifying vision. This democratic design process is in contrast to autocratic design, or design by dictator, where the project leader decides on the design. 
The term is especially common in technical parlance; it legitimizes the need and general acceptance of a unique systems architect and stresses the need for technical quality over political feasibility" (emphases added). 
As Del Boy used to say "mange tout, Rodney, mange tout".

A final word from the IPKat, who is no great admirer of the UPC but has a great deal of respect for camels: why do people always assert that a camel is a horse designed by a committee, rather than recognise the real truth that a horse is a camel designed by a sole inventor -- which is why so many people who back horses lose their money.
The Dromedary effect: design by committee and the Unitary Patent Hump The Dromedary effect: design by committee and the Unitary Patent Hump Reviewed by Jeremy on Tuesday, September 03, 2013 Rating: 5


  1. 'Design by Committee' is certainly a useful way of approaching what the European Commission and Parliament do. Who knows the hidden horse trading, lobbying, vested interests, face-saving, revenge-taking, incompetence, misunderstanding and herd behaviour that must also occur and contribute to legislation.

  2. Love the photo.

    This week's Spiegel has a great article about the total financial and ecological disaster of energy policy in Germany, the home of consensus, committees for everything, and thus of the "fauler Kompromiss". Exit from atomic power, and no National Grid to move the wind- and solar-gathered energy around, leaves the 16 Federal States of Germany burning ever more brown coal, the most egregious source of CO2, even while it pays unlimited and super-generous subsidies to anybody who fancies a solar panel on his roof. Electricity gets ever more expensive, even for the out of work and desperately poor, who are thereby paying for rich people to do expensive roofing jobs. Meanwhile, an enormous windpark in the North Sea is spinning its wheels uselessly, for want of a cable to the shore, and from there to where the power is needed. Absurd, outrageous, or what?

    And all the time, points out Der Spiegel, the elegant solution for managing a transition to environmentally friendly power is available, off the shelf, from Sweden. All too simple for adoption by the multitudinous consensus-seeking German committees though.

    It is interesting to see how much Wikipedia has to say in German about the high art of compromise:

    Change language to English though, and see how half the Wikipedia content disappears. Is it apochryphal, that fully half of all the world's literature on tax is written in German?

    And think, who is the mahout on the UPC camel, i) in the Commission and ii) in the European Parliament?

  3. The comment that Issigonis made in Vogue in 1958 was actually "A camel looks like a horse that was planned by a committee." His emphasis was on appearance rather than functionality. I don't think he was making any functional criticism of the camel. Indeed, they're pretty fast, have great endurance and, overall, are very well adapted to their environment. In my view, it would be an error to describe the UPC as a camel, it being particularly poorly adapted for purpose.

  4. Reading my own post, above, I am struck by the need to mention such current German debacles as the railway station in Stuttgart, the concert hall in Hamburg and the airport in Berlin, huge projects all, hugely exciting and prestigious, and all three hugely f***ed up by well-meaning but incompetent politicians convinced that only their unique compromise-finding, squaring the circle skills can move the project forward. The cost to every tax-payer ballooned hopelessly out of control years ago, and each project is at best a building site, nowhere near completion, donkeys' years behind schedule. Let not the UPC get anywhere the laughing stock represented by these other grand public projects in Germany.

    Germans think you can plan for all eventalities, down to the last little detail, from project start to project finish, before you even start, and indeed must do so. Brits know you can't, and proceed accordingly, to the horror of every right-thinking German. The answer is to take the best of both cultures, as we did with the European Patent Convention back in 1973, before the politicians found patent law sexy.

    Ironic I think, that it took a Prussian, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder:

    to point out that no plan survives contact with the enemy. For a British military officer that is as plain as that night follows day. So how come it made von Moltke so famous? Perhaps Germans still find surprising, insightful and shocking, what Moltke pointed out, all those years ago.

  5. "Ironic I think, that it took a Prussian, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder to point out that no plan survives contact with the enemy."

    With respect to the UPC, I'd also like to quote the words of another Prussian, namely Otto von Bismarck:

    "Politics is the art of the possible."

    There's another quote, often misattributed to Bismarck although originally from John Godfrey Saxe, which is also highly relevant in this context:

    "Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made."


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