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The Sewing Machine War

timothy posted more than 5 years ago | from the gmu-rockin'-in-the-free-world dept.

Patents 136

lousyd writes "Volokh has hosted a paper by George Mason University law professor Adam Mossoff on the patent fracas a century and a half ago surrounding the sewing machine. A Stitch in Time: The Rise and Fall of the Sewing Machine Patent Thicket challenges assumptions by courts and scholars today about the alleged efficiency-choking complexities of the modern patent system. Mossoff says that complementary inventions, extensive patent litigation, so-called 'patent trolls,' patent thickets, and privately formed patent pools have long been features of the American patent system reaching back to the antebellum era."

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Prediction (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27776311)

China wins.

Not really (3, Interesting)

WindBourne (631190) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776893)

once they feel that they own industry, they will push a new form of IP.

Any Pfaff repairpersons out there? (0, Offtopic)

unitron (5733) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777603)

Apologies for the off-topic position grabbing piggyback, but if anyone has experience working on Pfaff machines, please email me at coastalnet.com

Hey, it's not for me, it's for Mom.

Re:Any Pfaff repairpersons out there? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27778085)

Oh, well, as long as you're not some nancy-gayboy that would do anything as girly-faggish as sewing I guess that's okay then!

The 'what' era? (5, Informative)

fiannaFailMan (702447) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776349)

From wiki:

"Antebellum" is an expression derived from Latin that means "before war" (ante, "before," and bellum, "war").

In United States history and historiography, "antebellum" is commonly used, in lieu of "pre-Civil War," in reference to the period of increasing sectionalism that led up to the American Civil War. In that sense, the Antebellum Period is often considered to have begun with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, though it is sometimes stipulated to extend back as early as 1812. The period after the Civil War is called the Reconstruction era.

You learn something new every day.

Re:The 'what' era? (1)

jbeaupre (752124) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776435)

Now I can finally understand and enjoy The Antique Road Show.

Re:The 'what' era? (-1, Redundant)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27776443)

WOW! Hyuck, learn somethin' new every day! Thanks for the tip, mister KARMA WHORE!

Mod 'im down, boys!

Re:The 'what' era? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27776605)

In United States history and historiography, "antebellum" is commonly used, in lieu of "pre-Civil War," in reference to the period of increasing sectionalism that led up to the American Civil War. In that sense, the Antebellum Period is often considered to have begun with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, though it is sometimes stipulated to extend back as early as 1812. The period after the Civil War is called the Reconstruction era.

We must not forget that the George Mason University School of Law is located in Virginia. Talking about the "pre-War Between the States" period just doesn't roll off the tounge as well as antebellum.

Re:The 'what' era? (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27776651)

I think you mean "The War of Northern Aggression," deah suh.

Re:The 'what' era? (3, Funny)

publiclurker (952615) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776691)

Funny, we've always referred to it as the well justifies ass-whupin :-)

Re:The 'what' era? (4, Funny)

JohnVanVliet (945577) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777473)

one of my ancient relatives married that General that burned Atlanta .. Now my daughter lives in Atlanta . i keep threatening her that i will tell her friends that .

Re:The 'what' era? (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27778305)

Sort out your capitalization, it's embarrassing to see adults writing like that.

Re:The 'what' era? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27777213)

http://rompa.mybrute.com/

Stop the madness already (4, Interesting)

HangingChad (677530) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776361)

I was talking to a partner company one time and they were all about telling me how much they've spent on a patent attorney to patent their web site, which was basically a paint-by-numbers hosting site. There would have to be a ton of prior art on that and then they acted surprised when I told them about the Bilski case.

Another one in New York was convinced they could patent the idea of specialized user portal. When I tried to explain the difference between patent and copyright, they snuffed and reminded me that no one ever made money on copyright litigation.

The system we have now is absolutely insane. If you really want to reduce nuisance and frivolous litigation, then start with the patent system. And I hope the courts add to the Bilski ruling and puts an end to this nonsense.

Re:Stop the madness already (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27777123)

How about this for patent reform:

Impose the death penalty for anyone who attempts to patent doing some mundane activity "over the Internet."

Re:Stop the madness already (1)

Absolut187 (816431) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777197)

Um. What is your point?

Bilski has nothing to do with prior art. Bilski introduced a new test for patent-eligible subject matter, namely the "machine-or-transformation" test. But really Bilski is a cry for help from the Federal Circuit - they are almost begging the Supreme Court to provide guidance. And the Supreme Court has expressly asked Congress for guidance on the patent-eligible subject matter issue.

I hope Congress passes a patent reform act some day because the courts are confused, and most of the USPTO doesn't even speak English.

-A patent attorney

Re:Stop the madness already (2, Interesting)

jank1887 (815982) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777789)

When outrage over outsourcing started grabbing front page headlines, it was frequently mentioned that the U.S. no longer actually produces anything, and that its chief output was 'intellectual property'. So why is anyone surprised that the government has frequently been catering to the whims of the IP industries? DMCA for starters. Current administration proposing secret ACTA treaties to promote copyright. Congress failing to impose limits on patents, define fair use, etc.

IP abuse, it's all we got left.

Re:Stop the madness already (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27779743)

Yeah, those darned activist courts. They don't just strike down the unconstitutional laws put forth by Congress, they're always expanding their authority by creating new laws out of thin air at the first opportunity.

It's a good thing that congress spent all that time on critical issues like trying to override the spousal rights and responsibilities of Terry Schiavo's husband, instead of the minutiae of fixing the underpinnings of American progress and prosperity.

Re:Stop the madness already (1)

averner (1341263) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777401)

they snuffed and reminded me that no one ever made money on copyright litigation.

Have they ever heard of the RIAA?

Re:Stop the madness already (3, Interesting)

Absolut187 (816431) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777985)

Actually, I'm pretty sure the RIAA was losing money on the litigation itself (i.e. spending more in attorney fees than they were collecting).
I think that's why they gave up.

Singer had very restrictive patents (4, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27776395)

They actually claimed rights over the analog device outputs, if you can believe that.

You couldn't even darn your socks by directly streaming threads or applying patches without paying royalties.

The point (1)

trewornan (608722) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776415)

What's this guys point? It's always been a disaster so why try to fix it? Or does he have something constructive to say that I've missed?

Re:The point (3, Funny)

jbeaupre (752124) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776481)

2 possible conclusions:

1) Don't get your knickers in a twist over patents. The US has managed just fine.
2) Sewing machine patents caused the Civil War!

Getting to it (5, Insightful)

SuperKendall (25149) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776597)

The main point is that many people say the patent issues we have now are unique to the times, which as shown is not the case since the same patent issues (patent thickets, patent "trolls") existed 100 years ago).

Thus by studying the history of how that event turned out, we can better decide how to approach our current issues. As the article states there are assumptions about patent issues today that people make that this history shows to be incorrect - by knowing that we can avoid fixing the wrong things or moving in the wrong direction.

Re:Getting to it (2, Interesting)

rattaroaz (1491445) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777645)

I think the major problem is that of extremes. Many people argue that patents themselves are not bad, but when taken to the extreme that you can patent anything, and shut down a business for the smallest patent, and the fact that there are so many out there, many of which are conflicting, and redundant, that it is not reasonable to really understand what is patented and what is not, THAT is the bad thing. I'm not sure if this teaches us anything, other than that we didn't have the extremes back then, but now we do. It sounded like a mess then, and now it's a really big mess. Sort of like comparing 1 apple to 50,000 apples.

Re:The point (5, Insightful)

burnin1965 (535071) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777821)

Summary of his conclusion:

Industry in the United States has suffered from patent thickets and patent trolls almost since the inception of patent laws. We can expect to continually see patent thickets and patent trolls as many inventions and innovations today are incremental and based on prior patents. And since the Sewing Machine Wars were solved without changing the patent system or intervention of the government there is no reason to react today.

After reading the paper, my conclusion:
He is correct on all counts except the last one about the system taking care of itself. His paper provides two salient historical events that prove contrary to the last conclusion; first the only means by which the sewing machine manufacturers were able to break free of the patent litigation war and finally get to the business of making sewing machines, making profits, and innovating further was to circumvent the patent system by placing patents in a pool, and second he notes the patent thicket and trolls that plagued the newly born aircraft industry and was only solved when the government stepped in and created a patent pool so the industry could get to the business of aircraft instead of litigation.

Yes, the patent system was fscked from the beginning, all one has to do is read up on Benjamin Franklin's opinions of the new patent system, but assuming it will simply take care of itself is ludicrous. If such a conclusion is valid then we can also conclude that we can simply eliminate the patent system altogether and what comes of it will simply take care of itself.

Based on the patent pools as a solution it appears that patent law is in violation of the United States Constitution as the objective was "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts" and yet the patent laws are impeding progress.

Intellectual property (4, Funny)

MarkRose (820682) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776421)

When it comes to patents in the textile industry, you reap what you sew!

Re:Intellectual property (-1, Troll)

Morphine007 (207082) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776503)

WAKKA!! WAKKA!! .... fail

Re:Intellectual property (2, Funny)

risk one (1013529) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777955)

Very funny, I'm in stitches.

Sewing Machines?! Slashdot has Jumped The Shark! (-1, Offtopic)

Smidge207 (1278042) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776487)

In the era of Web 2.0, it appears that Slashdot has Jumped The Shark. The question now, is when did this happen? I remember in the early 2000s, Slashdot was THE geek website, but something has changed and it appears they have lost the magic. I mean, seriously, sewing machines?

I therefore decided, today, to cancel my account (Smidge207 [slashdot.org] ) take them off of my RSS Reader, and cancel my Time Warner broadband "service". I am off the grid; I am off the 'net as of today. I find your stories trite, boring and dare I say, irrelevant to IT.

So the questions of the day are:

When was the exact day, and, what was the exact story, that caused Slashdot to jump the shark? What is your best bet to the cause of their demise?

This is just my opinion, and I am sure each and ever person that uses RSS at some point has made the same decision about another website. If you get angry easily you might not want to read the rest of this post:

1. I am 32, openly homosexual, and I have outgrown any interest in the usual stories that appear on Slashdot. A specific example is this story, about a "Coup" attempt in an Apple Underground User Group. I have absolutely zero interesting in ever reading something like this for the rest of my life.

I felt violated by Rob Malda's minions by reading something that stupid today, and I will admit it may be because of my age, and due to the fact that I now have a wonderful husband (RMS) and a fucking life.

2. I never really participated in the community much, I only read stories, and as I mentioned the stories are getting very bad. Terrible one should say.

3. I am bored of the terms, "Troll", "Trolling", and "Dvork", they make my skin crawl just like it would make my skin crawl to hear someone use the terms, "Your playa hatin", or "Give me the bling, bling", "Smidge is a sock-puppet troll faggot" or "Far out man". These terms are so commonly used on Slashdot that it is impossible to avoid them and the only possible alternative is to never read anything on Slashdot.

4. Slashdot played an interesting role in the early 2000's, as it was a human funneled aggregator for news stories. As technology has progressed, a different model of story submission has started to thrive and it does not require a select group of humans to filter which stories are good and which stories are not good. I believe the model that Digg, Reddit, and DZone use are far superior to the method of story submission and approval that Slashdot uses.

I feel that the method that Slashdot uses is a dying art, and the very poor quality of stories suggests that the human element responsible for editorial content is either very young, or not very good.

5. RSS Readers have changed the way people read technology and other news, and it has caused people to stop having a "home page" anymore. People now have the ability to create their own custom filters and get their own news in anyway they see fit. The role of Slashdot as the only aggregator for IT news has ended. Given a choice, I would much rather use RSS than the editorial process at Slashdot to get news stories.

6. As evidenced by the responses to MY WELL THOUGHT-OUT POSTS JUST TODAY, it is quite impossible to have a discussion with some outspoken members of the Slashdot community. I call out Eldavojohn in particular. It would take a large amount of patience, time and energy that I, frankly, am not willing to part with, to discuss why I am "liar, hypocrite, troll, etc". It is just not interesting to me, and even if it was I would probably need to quit my job just to respond full time to the complaints.

If you feel the urge to yell at me, please remember this is just my opinion and I am very sure other people feel very differently. I do not have the time to discuss the matter anymore due to work and personal obligations, but thank you to the people that did respond. I did learn one very important lesson today though, some opinions are probably best left unsaid, as the effort required to explain it is not worth the cost of expressing it.

In summary, I do feel Slashdot has "Jumped The Shark", I won't read Slashdot anymore, and I am sorry I brought it up. Fuckers.

-Noah Daniels

Re:Sewing Machines?! Slashdot has Jumped The Shark (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27776537)

Far out man!

Re:Sewing Machines?! Slashdot has Jumped The Shark (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27776551)

Slashdot has the power to kick pretentious douchebags off the internet for good? Seriously?

Hot DAMN, I need to donate more! Keep up the good work, Taco and company!

(either that or Smidge left himself logged in in a public place or where he works and some jackass started trolling posts under his name; either way, fun!)

Re:Sewing Machines?! Slashdot has Jumped The Shark (-1, Troll)

Creepy Crawler (680178) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776849)

Bye.

Dont let the door kick you in the ass.

Smudge (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27777053)

Oh dear, do you think he's pissed with us?

Argumentum ad antiquitatem? (5, Insightful)

Reorix (1184073) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776507)

As far as the argument goes that the patent structure has been litigious, complicated, and obnoxious for a long time, I think we can all agree. Slashdot often discusses copyright as it applies to digital music, and it's interesting that the digital music industry began at a time in which there was heavy litigation over the copying of sheet music; this was in the late 1800's.

But the argument that this complex patent superstructure doesn't reduce efficiency seems a little far fetched to me. Just because we've done it this way for a long time doesn't automatically mean that it's the best system. Who can say what would have happened over the last century and a half with less complicated patent laws? I'm sure there would be no consensus as to whether we would have done better or worse.

The most compelling case for copyright, for me, comes from Joseph Schumpeter's concept of creative destruction. In essence, he argues that copyright creates more innovation because it does not allow people to use the status quo of ideas. However, I'm not sure that the complexity of the copyright system is what he had in mind, since adding complexity increases barrier entries to innovators without increasing incentives to monopolists (i.e. copyright holders) to improve as well.

Re:Argumentum ad antiquitatem? (1)

Timothy Brownawell (627747) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776545)

The most compelling case for copyright, for me, comes from Joseph Schumpeter's concept of creative destruction. In essence, he argues that copyright creates more innovation because it does not allow people to use the status quo of ideas.

Is this anything like how breaking people's windows will stimulate the economy [wikipedia.org] ?

Re:Argumentum ad antiquitatem? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27776953)

Not really, more like if we forced 50 different distributions for Linux with each generation, then we'd be more apt to advance faster.

Re:Argumentum ad antiquitatem? (1)

Logic and Reason (952833) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777055)

I assume that by "advance faster" you mean "waste more resources"?

Re:Argumentum ad antiquitatem? (1)

Thinboy00 (1190815) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777445)

No, because breaking windows uses up resources. There are ~infinitely many possible copyrightable things, so the more incentive we have to make them, the more we make. Now, of course, making these things also takes resources, but that didn't seem to stop Linus & friends. I do agree that Copyright etc. as they stand are FAR too *AA-biased, however [wikipedia.org] .

Re:Argumentum ad antiquitatem? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27777851)

Making more copyrightable things uses up resources. If they aren't any better than existing copyrighted things, then it's entirely a waste of resources.

Re:Argumentum ad antiquitatem? (1)

Firethorn (177587) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777499)

hmm... I certainly think that it can result in waste, but on the whole, proper patent laws are a benefit.

If the inventer/patent holder licenses/commercializes/sells their work for a good price, they get rich if the idea's good enough.

If they're unwilling to sell for a good price, people are forced to find a work around. In the process, they may or may not find another way that's more efficient than the original patent.

Finally, you get to the point that patents, unlike copyrights, will expire in most people's lifetimes. Thus, any delays are only temporary.

Remember, letting an inventor earn a profit off of their invention isn't a bad thing.

Re:Argumentum ad antiquitatem? (1)

Timothy Brownawell (627747) | more than 5 years ago | (#27778111)

hmm... I certainly think that it can result in waste, but on the whole, proper patent laws are a benefit.

Remember, letting an inventor earn a profit off of their invention isn't a bad thing.

Patents do this by permitting the patent holder to forbid other people from doing certain things or using certain knowledge. It seems [ucla.edu] that the negative effects of this tend to outweigh any positive effects of making it easier for inventors to turn a profit.

Re:Argumentum ad antiquitatem? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27776555)

Argumentum ad antiquitatem, or "It's not a bug, it's a feature".

Broken a long time... (1)

Roadkills-R-Us (122219) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776671)

... is still broken. It just means we are more overdue to fix it than most people realize.

But, since it's mostly lawyers who would hav eto fix it, and it funds lots of lawyers...

Re:Argumentum ad antiquitatem? (2, Informative)

Reorix (1184073) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777209)

Slashdot often discusses copyright as it applies to digital music, and it's interesting that the digital music industry began at a time in which there was heavy litigation over the copying of sheet music; this was in the late 1800's.

Hmm, whoops, I guess I mispoke. I don't know about the digital music industry beginning in the late 1800's. What I meant was the recorded music industry.

Either moderators were being kind and understanding (at Slashdot?!), or not only do slashdot members not RTFA, they don't RTFC either.

Re:Argumentum ad antiquitatem? (1)

rts008 (812749) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777455)

Either moderators were being kind and understanding (at Slashdot?!), or not only do slashdot members not RTFA, they don't RTFC either.

You left out:
c. lost in the noise, thus 'tuned out'
d. none of the above
e. all of the above
f. Cowboy Neal

Re:Argumentum ad antiquitatem? (3, Funny)

unitron (5733) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777489)

I thought maybe you were using a definition of digital music sufficiently broad to encompass player piano rolls.

Copyright results in me-too imitation (4, Interesting)

Geof (153857) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777261)

The most compelling case for copyright, for me, comes from Joseph Schumpeter's concept of creative destruction. In essence, he argues that copyright creates more innovation because it does not allow people to use the status quo of ideas.

Yet we end up with me-too music, me-too movies, and so on. For example, take the many TV shows that compose their own Mission Impossible-style music because they can't copy the original. The result is wasted effort for an imitation that is less effective.

What copyright prevents us from re-using is not only ideas, but also the form and social significance of cultural works. Creativity is often a matter of taking existing material (stories, songs, film footage) and using it to express new ideas. Because of copyright, a lot of effort that could be directed towards developing new ideas is instead spent on creating (often) derivative material - because only then can new ideas be expressed. Furthermore, the spread of the new ideas is limited because the audience must learn this new vocabulary. If you want to use Darth Vader to make a political statement, you can't - instead you must not only create your own Darth Vader equivalent, your audience must also invest time and effort to get the Darth Vader meaning - all before you can even make the political argument.

Think, if Shakespeare had had to come up with the plots for his plays, would he have been as innovative with language? If Disney had had to come up with their own fairy tales, would they have been able to draw on centuries of significance? Copying some things lets artists focus on their strengths. It frees them from the requirement to be jacks-of-all-trades. In an environment of strong copyright, rightsholder conglomerates (like Disney, like Sony) solve this problem by bringing together a range of content and artists together under one roof. The cost is that artistic vision must give way to commercial ownership and control ownership - control that typically prefers the tried-and-true to the innovative and new.

The justification for copyright is that it pays back the up-front cost of producing the work itself. The argument is exactly what you say - that we need more of it, or rather that it would otherwise be underproduced. But of course the important thing for society is not the content itself. It is not the words on paper, the images on film that matter: it is what we do with it. We encourage writing because we want political discussion, we want intellectual engagement, we want social activity (dancing to music, watching a movie with friends), and so on. From that perspective, copyright (at least as it stands) diverts resources away from what we really want, and towards content that in many cases adds little.

(To be fair, there is another claim for copyright, which is that it creates the infrastructure necessary to nurture talent in order to produce really high quality works. This assumes that talent is scarce and/or would not otherwise be developed, and that the infrastructure - the entertainment industries - actually do direct that talent towards and produce high quality. I don't find this convincing, but even if it were true it still has to content with the fact that copyright clamps down on the socialization, political engagement, and so on that are the real reason culture matters.)

I think you have Schumpeter backwards (2, Interesting)

Geof (153857) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777471)

I think you may have Schumpeter backwards.

The most compelling case for copyright, for me, comes from Joseph Schumpeter's concept of creative destruction. In essence, he argues that copyright creates more innovation because it does not allow people to use the status quo of ideas.

Did Schumpeter actually make such a claim about copyright? If so, I want to know - please point me to it.

Schumpeter argued for capitalism's need for innovation. At first, capitalists would invest in some new technology and reap high returns on their investment. Over time use of the technology would spread, and competition would force down margins. In order to start the cycle anew and again achieve a high returns, capitalists had to seek out new innovations. Thus it is capital's search for profits that drives and is enabled by innovation. This is creative destruction: constant innovation - discarding the old in favor of the new - in search of profits.

In this model, there is no need to fence off ideas to encourage innovation. Monopoly protection would do quite the opposite: by shielding profits from market competition, it frees capital from the need to pursue new ideas and technologies.

this story has been (3, Funny)

nimbius (983462) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776521)

covered before. an evil sewing machine is sent back in time to destroy the human resistance led by john conner, head of a local stitch'n'bitch in rural california.

or ive proudly avoided RTFA oncemore.

Conclusion not what you expect (2, Insightful)

phantomfive (622387) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776563)

From the paper:

The denouement of the sewing machine patent thicket in the Sewing Machine Combination of 1856, the first privately formed patent pool, further challenges the widely held belief that patent thickets are best solved through new statutes, regulations or court decisions that limit property rights in patents.

Essentially he says that patent thickets are not a problem, because they resolve themselves eventually. I suppose it was a good ending for those who owned the patents, but maybe not for those who wanted to do research in the field of sewing machine invention.

Re:Conclusion not what you expect (4, Interesting)

richie2000 (159732) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777145)

The conclusion I draw from reading the paper is that this patent thicket was resolved by the main players essentially agreeing to stop bothering about suing each other and start manufacturing sewing machines instead - as if the patent system had not existed at all. So the way to fix the problems that patents create is to ignore patents. Tell me again why we have them in the first place?

Re:Conclusion not what you expect (4, Insightful)

phantomfive (622387) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777193)

No, the difference is the main players held all the patents, which would essentially prevent competition from outsiders. They created the sewing machine cabal.

Re:Conclusion not what you expect (1)

richie2000 (159732) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777579)

With the kind of PR, business sense and the regular first-to-market advantages already inherent in the Combination members, I don't really see how they could realistically fear outside competition. Real fortune seldom lie in preventing competition as this takes focus away from actually competing.

Re:Conclusion not what you expect (3, Insightful)

dgatwood (11270) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777179)

I would argue that the current sad state of the sewing machine industry is a direct result of the "solution" to those patents. If there were fewer patents, imagine how much better these things could be. Instead, there is negligible innovation. There are basically only a couple of companies that make them, and the products are crap and getting worse by the year. They jam constantly, the work needed to thread the needle through the assembly is insanely complicated, the work needed to replace the bobbin underneath is a nightmare, etc. Unfortunately, everybody who could have come up with a better design was thwarted by the Sewing Machine Combination you speak of, and the result is that the entire industry converged to a single bad design that hasn't evolved significantly ever since.

By now, we should have sewing machines that use high end robotics to place the stitch in exactly the right place every time, that hold the thread out of the way for you, that detect jams and shut off instantly, that don't jam constantly, that don't tear the material, etc. Instead, we're stuck with sewing machines that apart from electric motors and some simple stitch pattern functionality are very nearly the same fundamental designs as those a hundred years ago or more. The pace of their evolution is positively glacial by comparison with most technology areas.

Re:Conclusion not what you expect (1)

phantomfive (622387) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777339)

These are interesting thoughts, but the patents expired over a hundred years ago. I don't think you can blame any lack of innovation since then on the patent system.

Incidentally, if you are looking for innovation in the sewing machine area, you might want to look at a serger. My mom loves hers: it cuts the fabric and hems it for her. Pretty awesome. Also, if your sewing machine jams constantly, you probably need a new machine or better technique.

Re:Conclusion not what you expect (1)

james_shoemaker (12459) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777877)

Bobbin underneath? You need a better machine. My 40 yr old singer has a top-loading self-winding drop-in bobbin. When I saw the nightmare contraption other manufacturers call a bobbin I just laughed, "You mean you have to take the bobbin out of the machine and put it WHERE to wind it?". Newer singers also have made threading the machine easier.

James

Re:Conclusion not what you expect (1)

matria (157464) | more than 5 years ago | (#27778077)

I always make sure to get a machine that has the bobbin fill on the outside of the machine so I can also use it to quickly and smoothly fill a bobbin with tatting thread to use in my tatting shuttles. Right now, though, I'm drooling over a Bernina 830. Bernina and Pfaff now have motion sensing devices to control speed and stitch length as you move the fabric. These are both of German design, however, so I suppose this is actually off-topic.

Re:Conclusion not what you expect (2, Informative)

omb (759389) | more than 5 years ago | (#27779647)

Pfaff ist aus Deutschland,
aber Bernina wird in der Schweiz hergestellt!

Re:Conclusion not what you expect (2, Insightful)

vertinox (846076) | more than 5 years ago | (#27779173)

Essentially he says that patent thickets are not a problem, because they resolve themselves eventually. I suppose it was a good ending for those who owned the patents, but maybe not for those who wanted to do research in the field of sewing machine invention.

Yeah. Of course patents resolve themselves eventually because they have a 17 (or so) year time limitation them.

Copyright on the other hand...

Challenging assumptions (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27776591)

challenges assumptions by courts and scholars today about the alleged efficiency-choking complexities of the modern patent system.

So basically its always been efficiency-choking and complex, but because it's always been that way and we've managed to hobble along for over a century, it's just fine the way it is.

The difference between then and now (4, Interesting)

MikeRT (947531) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776609)

Most of the economy was agrarian and the creation of new products was a much rarer act. The patent trolls had a much smaller terrain in which to do their hunting.

Today, only 2% of the workforce works in the agriculture sector. The creation of new products and services is how most Americans get into business. The patent system, working with the same unfixed flaws, cannot scale up to control the threat of patent trolls.

I think the simplest solution is to tie ownership of patents to either pure research or production. I have no problem with Qualcomm licensing patents from its research. I have no problem with a manufacturing company patenting the hell out of its products. I have extreme problem with law firms and companies composed of 2 weasels in business suits and a lawyer owning patents.

Re:The difference between then and now (1)

hitmark (640295) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776765)

said 2 weasels and a rat company is probably funded by the stock market, and the "people" (or do that diminish the value of said label?) are probably not the owners, but just the daily management of said company...

got to love the modern corporation, no?

Re:The difference between then and now (4, Funny)

jbeaupre (752124) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776783)

I have extreme problem with law firms and companies composed of 2 weasels in business suits and a lawyer owning patents.

Times are tough. It's hard to find a job. I don't buy the "Mexican's are stealing jobs" argument. But I'll be damned if I'm going to tolerate weasels putting on business suits and stealing jobs from humans!

Re:The difference between then and now (1)

BrokenHalo (565198) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777035)

...I'll be damned if I'm going to tolerate weasels putting on business suits and stealing jobs from humans!

Why? When they stand for public office, everybody votes for them.

Re:The difference between then and now (1)

jbeaupre (752124) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777215)

You proved my point: There are jobs for humans and jobs for weasels. Stealing human jobs is verboten!

Re:The difference between then and now (1)

unitron (5733) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777685)

But I'll be damned if I'm going to tolerate weasels putting on business suits and stealing jobs from humans!

How about Geckos?

Re:The difference between then and now (1)

DerekLyons (302214) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776911)

I think the simplest solution is to tie ownership of patents to either pure research or production. I have no problem with Qualcomm licensing patents from its research. I have no problem with a manufacturing company patenting the hell out of its products. I have extreme problem with law firms and companies composed of 2 weasels in business suits and a lawyer owning patents.

In other words you would deny the owner of a patent of his most basic right - the ability to sell it. (And what is a sale but a permanent exclusive license?)

Re:The difference between then and now (1)

Absolut187 (816431) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777853)

Derek: This is Slashdot. Just scream "OMG PATENTS ARE TEH SUXXORZ!!11!!" and move on.
Don't be a pest.

Re:The difference between then and now (1)

Bobb9000 (796960) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777855)

In other words you would deny the owner of a patent of his most basic right - the ability to sell it. (And what is a sale but a permanent exclusive license?)

While I agree that that's a problem with proposals like the GP's, I beg to differ as to selling a patent being the owner's "most basic right". The most basic right conferred by a patent is the right to exclude others from using your invention. Go back to the Constitution, Article I, Section 8:

"The Congress shall have power . . . To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries"

The right to sell your patent is very useful, but it's not the core of the patent right.

And no, the sale of a patent is not a permanent exclusive license. Patent assignment is legally a very different animal.

Re:The difference between then and now (1)

Absolut187 (816431) | more than 5 years ago | (#27778849)

The most basic right conferred by a patent is the right to exclude others from using your invention.
---

Agreed. But sometimes you can't exclude people by yourself.
Patent lawyers are expensive.
So you need venture capital.
Venture capital = the dreaded "patent troll".
Patent trolls can't get injunctions. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EBay_Inc._v._MercExchange,_L.L.C. [wikipedia.org] )
No injunction = less money.
Less money to venture capital/"troll" = less money to inventor.

So by denying the patent troll the right to exclude, you effectively deny the inventor the full value of the right to exclude.

Re:The difference between then and now (1)

Bobb9000 (796960) | more than 5 years ago | (#27779115)

Hold on now...several of your lines there are pretty contentious. First off, venture capital groups do not automatically equate to patent trolling. I'm not one of those who says that any non-practicing entity is a troll. To my mind, the designation "patent troll" is only deserved when you're rolling with a certain combination of crappy patents, underhanded tactics, and nuisance litigation. I'm in favor of tightening up the patentability standards, personally, not trying to target any classes.

I agree with EBay v. MercExchange, though - there's no good reason why patents should be exempt from the normal equitable standard for injunctions. You're begging the question by saying that it denies the "full value" of the patent, because you're assuming that it had a larger value that was somehow removed. I say that if you don't have an equitable need for an injunction, then the value is right where it ought to be.

Re:The difference between then and now (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27778573)

In other words you would deny the owner of a patent of his most basic right - the ability to sell it.

Patents are a privilege, a boon, a monopoly granted by the government. They are not, never have been and should never be considered a right.

Re:The difference between then and now (1)

Bobb9000 (796960) | more than 5 years ago | (#27779171)

It's not a natural right (if you think such things exist) - but government can grant rights. If the government took away your patent without following the law, they'd be violating your right to due process under the constitution.

Re:The difference between then and now (3, Insightful)

drakaan (688386) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776995)

The idea of patent protection is to protect companies who spend on machinery and fabrication and tooling and materials, etc against an interloper who can mass-produce the new thing without having to do the groundwork and research first. Once you create something genuinely new, you are granted a temporary monopoly to reward your inventiveness.

With software, it's not the same scenario. Unpaid hackers in their garage have the same barrier to entry as big corporations (namely none) in trying out new ideas for software on general-purpose computers. A computer probably costs less for a large software company to buy than for an individual, in fact. Aside from that, writing code is an exercise in pure thought, and ideas are not patentable...you can write the ideas down and copyright them, but as the lawyer in a previous post said, "nobody makes money from copyright litigation".

The article is nearly a troll, and at best a poorly concieved attempt at attacking a straw-man, since it's not the patent system in general that's faulted lately, it's software *patents* that are gumming up the works.

Re:The difference between then and now (1)

Absolut187 (816431) | more than 5 years ago | (#27779011)

Actually the main idea of the patent system is to encourage disclosure to the public.
A quid-pro-quo for the temporary monopoly.

Google could just as easily keep their software secret.
http://www.patentlyo.com/patent/2008/07/the-death-of-go.html [patentlyo.com]

But to address your "free-rider" argument, why is time and effort spent designing and writing a computer program any less deserving of protection than time and effort spent in - say - designing a new crop implement or a new drug?

All patents "gum up the works". That is the nature of a monopoly.
Software patents are no different.
That is the price we (the public) pay for the disclosure.

Quid-pro-quo, Clarice.

Re:The difference between then and now (1)

Bobb9000 (796960) | more than 5 years ago | (#27779327)

"You got your incentive-to-produce in my incentive-to-disclose!"

"You got your incentive-to-disclose in my incentive-to-produce!"

It's really both of these things. The point is to promote the progress of the useful arts, and both of them do that.

On the free-rider issue, the reason why the time and effort spent on a computer program might be less worthy than the time and effort spent on a new crop implement or drug is because the time and effort spent on anything is irrelevant. Patents aren't about rewarding any individual inventor, and it surely isn't about sweat of the brow. It's about what best promotes innovation. If software will continue to be produced without the patent incentive, then we have no business putting the patent incentive into place.

Now, you can argue that the patent incentive is needed (for disclosure, for incentive, whatever), but please don't talk about the worthiness of the effort. That's not what it's about.

Re:The difference between then and now (1)

curunir (98273) | more than 5 years ago | (#27779729)

...it's software *patents* that are gumming up the works.

I understand the sentiment against software patents, since the kind that have been granted have generally been overly broad or relatively obvious, but I have a problem with invalidating all software patents. It's almost a condemnation of the field of computer science by declaring that the product of the research in the field to be unworthy of patent protection when other scientific fields enjoy that protection.

I would argue that there are algorithms that legitimately deserve patent protection. A company like Dolby labs probably spends millions employing researchers and testing new sound compression algorithms. Google probably spends millions employing researchers working on search, sorting and similar algorithms to continually improve their search offering and make it capable of handling an ever-increasing amount of data that needs to be indexed. And from what we've heard of late, financial services companies spend a ton on programmers and mathematicians to develop algorithms for analyzing data from the stock market and other sources to inform investment decisions. And those are just a few obvious examples off the top of my head...I'm sure there's many more.

I personally feel that completely abolishing software patents will do more harm than good. I'd like to see opponents of software patents argue more for a reformation of the procedures the patent issuers use to evaluate whether a software patent is legitimate. I'd like to see the USPTO hire reviewers who deal solely with software patents and can have a more informed opinion on what is actually non-obvious and what is not overly-broad. I can also see the argument that the software industry moves faster than other industries and that patent protection on algorithms like these should be shorter than it currently is.

I know it's not a popular position here on Slashdot to argue for keeping software patents, but I'm always struck by how easily people here will casually dismiss computer science without even realizing it. When you see posts here about Knuth, Dijkstra or another computer scientist of that prominence, you're likely to see almost universal reverence for their contributions in responses, and rightly so. Yet people won't see a contradiction in advocating that those types of contributions aren't eligible for patent protection. That, to me, just seems wrong.

Re:The difference between then and now (1)

fermion (181285) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777533)

There are other differences in terms of travel, rapid communication, and data processing capability. One can imagine that 100 years ago we would never have had litigation about farmers in the backwaters being sued because they might be saving seeds. Equal I doubt Bayer had the resources to sue everyone into oblivion for extracting their medicine from willow bark.

Then lets take that great homage to the greatest anti-bussiness anti-free market rally that so many took part in a couple weeks ago. Would destroying massive quantities of legitimate product be successful today? No, because we have international treaties coupled with international communications and travel to protect the products of legitimate business people.

I think this book is mostly a testament against the free market. Continues innovation abd competition is just not viable. The consumer is not going to want to pay enough for most products to cover development cost and generate the profits required for a long term venture. In other words, most people want an aristocracy, of which they have some chance of becoming a part, if they are not already, and that will not happen if someone else will take the idea and just make it better. The aristocracy of the american car companies have fallen to the might of innovation.

Of course, if we focused on small business, allowing them to fail when they become irrelevant, then maybe it would work, and patents and copyright could pay some part of that, if they were limited to a generation or two. As it is patent and copyrights just support the aristocracy,

Re:The difference between then and now (1)

Absolut187 (816431) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777825)

What if a "weasel in a business suit" invents something really innovative and beneficial?

What about University professors, are they "patent trolls"? They don't tend to manufacture.

Are researchers allowed to sell/license their patents to "weasels in business suits"?
And if they can't, what does that do to the value of the patent?

What we really need now is a focus on the novelty and non-obviousness of the claims, not ownership of the patent, and not what kind of clothes the owners wear..

Re:The difference between then and now (1)

wiredlogic (135348) | more than 5 years ago | (#27778095)

The primary reason why intellectual property laws were written into the constitution was to incentivise people to create useful things for the greater good by giving them a limited period of exclusivity in the creation of those things (goods, designs, creative works). Your idea of penalizing an inventor with no manufacturing capacity of his own works against the intent of the patent system. Obviously the way things are now allows the system to be gamed but some of the exploitable aspects are necessary to help out the little guy.

The Secret of Singer's success was... (5, Interesting)

GuyFawkes (729054) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776797)

two fold...

neither reason had anything to do with how good the machines were, Singer failed miserably to make it a viable business until he took a lawyer on board, and the two unique business methods were implemented.

1/ Singer sewing machines introduced the idea of buying a sewing machine on credit, and pushed this as the preferred way to purchase.

2/ The list price of each machine was extremely high, but you got a huge discount for trading in your old machine.

What this means was that everyone traded in, they would even buy an old used machine specifically to trade it in... Singer scrapped every single machine that was traded in.

So on the one hand they were the only company who offered easy credit, and on the other hand they were wiping out the market of competing marques as second hand machines.

From a business perspective, brilliant.

Re:The Secret of Singer's success was... (3, Interesting)

Absolut187 (816431) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777085)

If the Singer machines sucked so much, why would people take out a loan AND trade in their old machine just to get a Singer??

Re:The Secret of Singer's success was... (1)

GuyFawkes (729054) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777363)

Nobody said they sucked...

In today's money they were maybe equivalent to an desktop Epilog CO2 laser machine.

If every other desktop laser engraver is proprietary, cash only, an Epilog doesn't stand out.

If Epilog start doing credit purchase as the standard way of buying, and offer a 5000 buck trade in for any other desktop laser, before you know it the only second hand lasers are Epilog, and they are all worth 5k, and before you know it "sewing machine = Singer"

There are lots of clones around, my mum has a clone treadle made in India, and a Singer, both work, both have interchangeable parts, but the Indian machine is a make you never heard of, because it wasn't sold on easy credit and it did not represent a scrapped singer...

Interestingly the proposed UK solution to the economic crisis in the car industry follows the Singer model, we will pay you to scrap your old car.

Re:The Secret of Singer's success was... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27777765)

Interestingly the proposed UK solution to the economic crisis in the car industry follows the Singer model, we will pay you to scrap your old car.

It might have worked for Singer, but it's fucking stupid for the UK.

The govt is offering a £1,000 discount if you buy a new car and scrap a ten-year or older car. They estimate that two thirds of these subsidies will go to cars that would have been purchased anyway. Only one in seven of the cars purchased in the UK are manufactured in the UK. Putting this together, the govt is spending £21,000 ($31,000) for every extra British car sold. WTF?

Re:The Secret of Singer's success was... (1)

rts008 (812749) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777593)

Monster Cables, MS Windows, SUV's, 50 inch TV screens, 'designer-label' clothes, etc....

The concept is not new...where have you been?

Re:The Secret of Singer's success was... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27779185)

My 1926 singer still works fine. Cabinet is a little battered, and you have to completely clean out the gummed up oil every 30 years or so, but otherwise fine. Sews a nice tight stitch in anything from silk to 1/4 inch leather.

What is new today (1)

Bruce Perens (3872) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776837)

What is new today is the rise of global, large-scale collaboration on public-benefit works like Open Source software and Creative Commons, much of which is produced without any profit motive. This was made possible by the Internet, and to a lesser extent by Usenet before it. IMO the existence of this collaboration changes the entire economic equation, and if the patent system doesn't fit it well, it's the patent system that has to change.

Bruce

The most fascinating thing (4, Interesting)

beadfulthings (975812) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776901)

About early sewing machines, really isn't the patent fights. It's about the way they were sold. Singer sewing machines were the first big-ticket household items sold to average buyers on installment credit. Far too expensive for the average household, they were pitched to the housewife together with low, "easy" regular payments.

My mom died recently, and I inherited her sewing machine which is still in perfect condition but which was state-of-the-art back in 1959. She was incredibly jealous of it and allowed no one to use it--ever. I did a little reading on it and found that when new, it cost about two months's salary for my father. No wonder.

Isaac Singer was something of a failure before he came up with the easy payment plan. He had a product that was wanted and needed by people who couldn't pay for it all at once. The company he started thrived and succeeded for over a century thereafter. Too bad it's been absorbed now and is nothing more than a name--they made a damned good sewing machine.

Required Quote (3, Funny)

Ukab the Great (87152) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776903)

In times like these, it is helpful to remember that there have always been times like these--Paul Harvey

Another example (3, Interesting)

nsayer (86181) | more than 5 years ago | (#27776907)

Los Angeles is what it is today primarily because of Edison's patent thicket around motion pictures. Edison operated out of New Jersey. Those who wanted to make motion pictures without a patent license had to get as far away from Edison's enforcement squads as possible, and Los Angeles qualified and had nice weather for filming.

Move forward a couple decades and you come to the era of the Studio system. The only way to make a movie during that period was under the auspices of the studios. Why? Because they had a patent pool thicket formed around special effects techniques, and nothing more interesting than a talking-head documentary could really be done without impinging on at least part of it.

Nowadays, we stand on the brink of another era of patent thicket in motion pictures - this time around digital special effects. We'll have to see how this one turns out.

The Point of Patents: First Mover Advantage (1, Insightful)

Rolgar (556636) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777095)

The advantage to the inventor of an invention was supposed to be a limited 'first mover' advantage, where the inventor gets the opportunity to establish market share, name recognition, work out the bugs and recover some of the development cost for a limited period of time.

220 years ago, items were produced one at a time, and one craftsman would do all the work. Today, with mass production, the advantage should be gained or surrendered in a much shorter period of time. Three years is enough time with modern technology to secure the fruits of patent protection. Beyond that, we have serious limitations imposed by patents on real competition.

We should also add a new requirement, that if anybody, given only a description of what the device does, can make the same item or one that near perfectly replicates the function of the invention within one year, the patent should be considered obvious, and not allowed.

Lots of examples (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27777269)

Don't forget the motion picture and the phonograph, both of which are not only illustrative of patent issues but also copy protection schemes. At one point, Victor tried impressing a copy of the "His Master's Voice" trademark picture into the grooves of records to dissuade bootleggers from pulling new stampers from the records and selling them under their own labels. Customers complained, obviously, because it effected the sound quality.

So, it was inefficient back then too (2, Insightful)

noidentity (188756) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777537)

A Stitch in Time: The Rise and Fall of the Sewing Machine Patent Thicket challenges assumptions by courts and scholars today about the alleged efficiency-choking complexities of the modern patent system. Mossoff says that complementary inventions, extensive patent litigation, so-called 'patent trolls,' patent thickets, and privately formed patent pools have long been features of the American patent system reaching back to the antebellum era.

And? That they existed then too doesn't make them a good thing. The standard the patent system has to meet is to "promote the progress of science and useful arts". If it's not doing that, scrap it! The loss of parasites means a gain for us.

OT: Computerized sewing/embroidery machines (1)

Krishnoid (984597) | more than 5 years ago | (#27777701)

In the past few years I've seen devices in the low $k that can do amazing things with sewing and embroidery, but can't get a good sense of the extent of their capability. From an external view, they look to be something between a smart sewing machine and string-based plotter, and are capable of sewing and trimming (and who knows what else) in one pass. Anyone have good references or stories about what these things are capable of, and at a more technical level, what they actually are?

Re:OT: Computerized sewing/embroidery machines (1)

Animats (122034) | more than 5 years ago | (#27778747)

The Brother Quattro [brother-usa.com] is a good example. Brother makes printers, machine tools, and sewing machines. All three lines come together in their computer-controlled embroidery machine. This one even has a built-in LCD panel. There's embroidery software, too, for designing embroidery work. (I had to learn about this once when an artist friend sent me a "company logo" file she's been given for a web site, but couldn't read. It turned out to be an embroidery machine control file. I found a program that could render it (stitch by stitch) and got a picture out.)

Computer-controlled embroidery machines have been around for 25 years or so, and before that, ones controlled by cams and chains.

To paraphrase Wikipedia: (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27778413)

"Other crap exists" is not an argument that can be used to support crap.

Airplanes were the same (2, Informative)

rmcd (53236) | more than 5 years ago | (#27778929)

See also Unlocking the Sky [amazon.com] by Seth Shulman. It's a fascinating account of Glenn Curtiss, who in many ways did more to create the modern airplane than the Wright Brothers. For example, Curtiss invented ailerons; the Wrights by contrast had a difficult to control system that physically twisted the wings. But the Wright patents prevented Curtiss from selling his planes, and it was only military intervention that got the market moving.

This book will reinforce any ill feelings you may have toward the patent system.

antebellum era? (1)

myowntrueself (607117) | more than 5 years ago | (#27779053)

Has the USA *ever* had an 'antebellum' era? ('antebellum' meaning 'before war')

I thought that the USA averaged a major war every 20 years ever since the nation was formed?

Re:antebellum era? (1)

grocer (718489) | more than 5 years ago | (#27779787)

The war in this case is the Civil War...the one that basically created the idea of Federal Government as we know it...and even then, it only refers to the period immediately before the Civil War, generally.
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