05 August 2011

What we talk about when we talk about patents II

America loves the single guy against the world. There's one story that colors our ideas about invention and innovation more than any other, and that's the story of Thomas Edison. The tale of a telegraph operator picking himself up through ingenuity to secure more than 1,000 patents and usher in the electrical age is charming and magical, to the point that the light bulb itself has the symbol of sudden insight. Of course the problem with this story is it's mostly crap.

Not that Edison wasn't a genius, because he was; not because he didn't oversee remarkable innovations, because that's true as well. But the majority of his work, including the development of a commercially viable incandescent bulb, was simply incremental improvements on other people's ideas, carried out by an army of work-for-hire inventors who were treated with varying degrees of fairness. Edison is famous for his poor treatment of Nicolai Tesla, and then subsequently fighting a wrong-headed battle with his former employee over whether electrical distribution should use AC or DC current. But Edison had an even darker side, a ruthless side. He vigorously protected the copyrights to his motion pictures even as he duplicated and exhibited Georges Méliès's A Trip to the Moon without compensation.

Edison was a complex man with a mixed legacy. But my point here is he was not solely, or even primarily, responsible for the various patents he acquired. Nonetheless, his legend lives on in the way we think about patents: the solitary inventor with original insight needs protection from the "theft" of the fruits of his genius. He is rewarded with riches, we are rewarded with innovation. It's a pretty story, and it would be harmless enough, except that it's riddled with false assumptions about the nature of innovation and the importance of originality. It's this last myth—that purely original ideas are to be valued above incremental improvements, that purely original ideas exist at all—that has done the most damage to the way that patents are awarded and rewarded.

(to be continued)

No comments:

Post a Comment