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Alexander Graham Bell - Patent Thief?

timothy posted more than 6 years ago | from the game-of-telephone-but-with-patents dept.

Communications 280

DynaSoar writes "MSNBC is carrying an AP article reviewing a book, due out January 7, that claims to show definitive evidence that Bell stole the essential idea for telephony from Elisha Gray. Author Seth Shulman shows that Bell's notebooks contain false starts, and then after a 12-day gap during which he visited the US Patent Office, suddenly show an entirely different design, very similar to Gray's design for multiplexing Morse code signals. Shulman claims that Bell copied the design from Gray's patent application and was improperly given credit for earlier submission, with the help of a corrupt patent examiner and aggressive lawyers. Shulman also claims that fear of being found out is the reason Bell distanced himself from the company that carried his name. And if Gray Telephone doesn't seem to roll off the tongue, Shulman also noted that both of them were two decades behind the German inventor Johann Philipp Reis, who produced the first working telephony system."

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The most interesting thing about this controversy (5, Interesting)

elrous0 (869638) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829182)

What's truly amazing is that two men (perhaps more) were working, pretty much independently of each other, yet came up with the same basic idea in such a parallel fashion that they ended up arriving at the U.S. patent office withing HOURS of each other.

In the history profession, we used to have an idea called "Great Men" [wikipedia.org] (the idea that great, unique individuals make history). But in recent decades, this idea has fallen out of favor in the history field, in favor of the idea that mass movements and attitude shifts within the larger society "make" the history (the so-called "Zeitgeist" [wikipedia.org] idea). Traditionally, inventions like the phone, radio, etc. have been attributed to a unique individual genius. Yet, the more we learn, we see that theses inventions seemed almost "in the air" of the times, with any number of people developing them independently of one another. It seems that if Edison hadn't "invented" the phonograph, someone else would have (and someone else probably did, or was at least working on it at the same time).

I used to be a big proponent of "Great Men" history myself, but stuff like this gives me pause.

Re:The most interesting thing about this controver (4, Informative)

$RANDOMLUSER (804576) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829284)

I don't think you have to look much farther than calculus (Newton and Leibnoz) or evolution (Darwin and Wallace) or the incandescant light bulb (Edison and a cast of hundreds) to see that this is so.

Re:The most interesting thing about this controver (3, Interesting)

CannonballHead (842625) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829424)

On the other hand, let's say there are 4.5 billion people in the world (I'm not sure how many there were back then). That's a lot of people; is it really so strange that two people with have the same idea, given that they have the same technology, the same lack in technology, etc...?

Re:The most interesting thing about this controver (4, Interesting)

morcego (260031) | more than 6 years ago | (#21830216)

is it really so strange that two people with have the same idea, given that they have the same technology, the same lack in technology, etc...?


Actually, no. There is always a relationship somewhere. All technologies these days (and for the past decades, or maybe centuries) is based on something previously in existence, be it a technology, ideas, concepts etc.

Also, you are correct the lack in technology is a great factor. Most creations are made to solve a given problem already in existence. You can see it on the F/OSS movement: scratching your own itch, I think they call it.

The problem is there are always too many things to consider, so a correct historical analyzes is usually not possible. Historical researchers can only do so much.

Re:The most interesting thing about this controver (2, Insightful)

blueg3 (192743) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829922)

In most of these cases, there's some communication between the individuals working on the same idea, but most of the work is done in private. Often the appearance of their work is different, though, even if it's fundamentally the same. (The calculus is a good example.)

Even then, scientists and inventors were not that insular -- the foundations of all of these discoveries had been slowly generating through previous works. In more recent times, the communication within the scientific community makes this standard -- WW2 through the Cold War is full of examples where the same thing was invented twice.

Re:The most interesting thing about this controver (4, Interesting)

pieterh (196118) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829306)

Don't forget that the patent establishment has invested a huge amount of money and effort, over the last 150+ years, to promote a mythology to support its claims to perpetuate its system of exclusive privileges. The myths are deep and taken as real by many who should be more skeptical. I debunked the main myths on Free Software Magazine [freesoftwaremagazine.com] .

One of the big old myths is the "inventor" and "invention" myths. In fact, innovation is well understood (since the mid-1800's at least) to be a social effect, driven by market demand for new products and enabled by technological progress. Produce a new material in cheap enough quantities, and dozens of "inventors" will come up with similar new applications for it.

Of course there cases of lone inventors who work outside the rest of society - these are so rare they prove the general case that invention is the result of a social network. And this social network, which may be less obvious in some industries, is absolutely central to the innovation process in software, which is why the concept of software patents is to utterly bogus and corrupt.

Patents of all kinds are just a form of protectionist economics, along with trade barriers, subsidies, legislated monopolies, and so on. These work for those who can work the system, everyone else pays the cost.

Re:The most interesting thing about this controver (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21829382)

Anyone who believes patents aren't a necessity in a free market system is a fool. If it weren't for patents we'd have one or two large corporations who manufatured and sold us everything. Anybody who came up with a new idea would have it copied by one of the large companies and brought to market faster and cheaper than the person who initially invented it.

Re:The most interesting thing about this controver (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21829416)

Then why is it that the huge corporations like Intel and IBM are the ones with the giant patent portfolios? Maybe because they are using them to destroy small competitors?

Re:The most interesting thing about this controver (2, Insightful)

jargon82 (996613) | more than 6 years ago | (#21830006)

it's possible that it's because they are actually spending R&D dollars that others don't have. Unlikely, I know. But possible.

Re:The most interesting thing about this controver (4, Insightful)

pebs (654334) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829484)

Anyone who believes patents aren't a necessity in a free market system is a fool. If it weren't for patents we'd have one or two large corporations who manufatured and sold us everything. Anybody who came up with a new idea would have it copied by one of the large companies and brought to market faster and cheaper than the person who initially invented it.

The problem here is that you are putting too much value on ideas. Ideas aren't really worth that much. If anything, its the implementation of the ideas that is worth something. Ideas are a dime a dozen.

Re:The most interesting thing about this controver (1)

demonlapin (527802) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829680)

I wish I had mod points. True, very true. I've had any number of ideas over the years that - within a couple of years - became highly successful products. Of course, I lacked the financing and technical know-how to make them into those successful products, which is why I'm not a billionaire. Consider the MP3 player - anybody could have figured out it was going to be a big product. But you had to put in the time to make a compact device with good battery life and a decent UI, which was the hard part.

Re:The most interesting thing about this controver (5, Insightful)

SatanicPuppy (611928) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829760)

I think you've got it backwards, actually. Implementation is cheap, once the idea is understood. If the only barrier was implementation, then there would be nothing new, only things that we knew could be done, that we have finally become able to produce.

The reason for the patent system is to keep people from hiding their ideas away. The alternative to the patent system isn't free information, but severely protected, jealously guarded information. Products would be more expensive, because you'd have to safeguard the ideas that went into them by building misdirection into the product. Ideas could actually be lost, in cases where the inventor dies with his secret, which, of course, he'd be unable to share with anyone without endangering his livelihood.

I don't disagree that the patent system is completely screwed up right now, but the solution is not to throw it away. It has a purpose.

Patents don't promote disclosure (4, Insightful)

pieterh (196118) | more than 6 years ago | (#21830166)

Trade secrets are very hard to keep in any case. There are a million ways that trade secrets leak out, most trivially by people taking a good look at the products in question. If a secret could be really kept, the person holding it would not seek a patent. There would be no point. Secrecy is a cheaper and more efficient protection for a market, if it's possible. The patent protects ideas that cannot be otherwise protected. So in fact you have it completely backwards: the patent system protects ideas that are otherwise unprotectable.

And since disclosing ideas before they are patented is harmful to getting a patent, the patent system actually discourages disclosure and promotes secrecy.

Society gets the worst possible deal - monopolies in exchange for ideas that would become public knowledge anyhow, and increased secrecy in areas where collaboration is needed for innovation.

It's not a sane system. It exists because of the logic of power and money and history, not economic logic.

Re:The most interesting thing about this controver (1)

jelle (14827) | more than 6 years ago | (#21830192)

"Ideas could actually be lost, in cases where the inventor dies with his secret, which, of course, he'd be unable to share with anyone without endangering his livelihood."

First of all: Sure, nobody uses trade secrets today, eh? And second of all, an 'idea' is not worthy of a patent. If it were then I'd have a pile of patents every week.

With the quality of 99 out of every 100 patents being granted today, nobody would care if the 'idea' would forever be 'lost', because first of all those patents do not describe anything nobody else has already thought of, and second of all they are written in a language that only a patent lawyer can read (e.g. useless for everybody else).

Re:The most interesting thing about this controver (1)

AvitarX (172628) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829448)

I am willing to bet that Eddison himself knew this.

The fact that he claimed invention was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration would imply to me that all you need to do is brute force it.

Of course, an argument could still be made that the patent system encourages brute forcing out the correct thing. My friend worked for the material sciences (or some such) lab at the university. He pulled stuff apart all day. There was an off chance that something wouldn't actually pull apart, and then the real fun begins. The amount of people that are making substances to pull apart is probably quite huge (relative to the one person whom would be credited with inventing the awesome new composite), but in a non-academic situation (and are even school labs purely academic?) the fact that you will get years to make money on it is encouragement to pay people to try and pull it apart on the off chance it is you that succeeds.

As far as finding new uses for the new awesome material the patent system probably helps a whole lot less.

That is why I personally think our system is broken. It should be designed around encouraging the raw R&D (create new material, like Goretex) not the marketing of it (jacket that breathes while being waterproof), which is surely the way things are going now.

Re:The most interesting thing about this controver (3, Insightful)

ShieldW0lf (601553) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829772)

Edison definitely thought he knew this. He was a hack who had to use experiments to do everything, which is why he hired so many people to do the grunt work. To Edison, science was an industrial business process of data collection.

Contrast this with the efforts of such as Tesla, and you see an example of genius at work. Genius is about intuition. It's about having a massive jumble in your head that you assemble into a coherent system by deduction, then test afterwards.

Patents are about protecting people like Edison and those who make science a clever trick to hold over your fellow man and money off them. It's about protecting them from people like Tesla, who are idealistic and want to communicate the truths they see to be self-evident and see them exploited to the greatest degree possible, even if there's nothing in it for them.

Patents are, and have always been, economic weapons used to keep other people from knocking the King of the Castle down from his perch. They are uniformly bad for progress.

Re:The most interesting thing about this controver (1)

Znork (31774) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829956)

"Genius is about intuition. It's about having a massive jumble in your head that you assemble into a coherent system by deduction, then test afterwards."

Of course, lock a genious in a cellar for fifty years of uninterrupted invention and what do you get?

I mean, really. If you had an average genious and stuck them in a cellar in 1957 and let them out today, would they have a bunch of marvellous inventions? Or would they have a bunch of stuff that would have been marvellous inventions in 1958?

Even the best genious requires the input of the entire world to create the massive jumble from which they take the intuitive leaps, and the progress of a million monkeys building upon eachothers advances inevitably outpaces the single geniouses.

"It's about protecting them from people like Tesla"

I'd say it's more about protecting them from competition and further progress. They could always libel, ostracise and marginalize people like Tesla. They might not be able to do the same thing to another businessman who took Teslas ideas and produced competetive and cheaper or better products.

"They are uniformly bad for progress."

Without a doubt.

Re:The most interesting thing about this controver (4, Insightful)

iocat (572367) | more than 6 years ago | (#21830028)

Right, because Tesla was forbidden from seeking patents on his stuff? Tesla was a genius, but there's no intirsic goodness in being a poor businessman and letting yourself get screwed.

Edison was more commercial, but again, you simply cannot use that fact to discount his contribution or the number of inventions he and his team created. The breakthrough with the lightbulb wasn't knowing how to make a lightbulb -- everyone in the field had the basic idea already -- it was findng a filament that didn't burn out after ten seconds. Edison's team tried THOUSANDS of filaments before they found one that worked. By applying brute force, Edison and his team did more good than any number of people who had great ideas but couldn't productize them.

It's all in the accumulation of knowledge (2, Interesting)

jake-in-a-box (512556) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829750)

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

        Isaac Newton, Letter to Robert Hooke, February 5, 1675

http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Isaac_Newton/ [quotationspage.com]

Not as nice as it sounds... (3, Interesting)

Space cowboy (13680) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829876)

What is less known about that particular quote, is that it's actually a finely-crafted insult from Newton, aimed at Hooke.

The two men had a very acrimonious relationship, and Hooke had accused Newton of "borrowing" ideas from him in the past. Hooke was a short man, and Newton's quote was basically saying "I have indeed made use of the discoveries of great men, but you are not one of those men". The implication is that Hooke was a midget in scientific terms, as well as in physical stature.

Simon.

Re:The most interesting thing about this controver (1)

epine (68316) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829896)

The first time I heard the expression twenty years ago, "the exception that proves the rule", I thought it had the hallmarks of group think.

Certainly you are right that the patent system has a lot invested in the "great man" mystique. I don't have a problem with this. What I have a problem with is that the patent system grants two orders of magnitude more patents than the number of great inventors justifies.

In general, if society determines that a precious resource is scarce, the reward is vastly amplified. Your argument would justify a patent system where 1 to 10 percent as many patents were awarded, but the patent itself in those cases had far more profound powers.

the concept of software patents is to utterly bogus and corrupt
Your argument doesn't support this assertion. Your points would be better suited to putting forward an argument that there is so little shortage of innovation in modern society that we would be better off without the patent system altogether, as there is no practical way to implement the patent system where the benefits outweigh the abuses.

I personally believe that Shuji Nakamura's work deserved a full measure of reward. Nor do I believe that cases like Nakamura are especially rare. The problem is that we've drowned the good work in sheep dip sea of patented mediocrity.

Re:The most interesting thing about this controver (1)

I(rispee_I(reme (310391) | more than 6 years ago | (#21830256)

"The first time I heard the expression twenty years ago, "the exception that proves the rule", I thought it had the hallmarks of group think."


In one of his F&SF essays, Isaac Asimov, asserts that the expression assumes the third definition of "prove" [answers.com] : "To determine the quality of by testing; try out."

That is really the only sense in which an exception could be said to prove a rule, at any rate. Now I seem to remember the essay applying that idea to the expression:

"The barber cuts everyone in town's hair, except for those who cut their own. Who cuts the barber's hair?"

Re:The most interesting thing about this controver (1)

werfele (611119) | more than 6 years ago | (#21830350)

The first time I heard the expression twenty years ago, "the exception that proves the rule", I thought it had the hallmarks of group think.
I think you've misunderstood the expression [wikipedia.org] . The "proves [m-w.com] " in the expression is the (perhaps somewhat outdated) second meaning in Merriam-Websters, "to test the truth, validity, or genuineness of." The point is that the exception ought to make you rethink the general applicability of the rule.

big deal (1)

p51d007 (656414) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829378)

Nothing like beating a dead horse. It's like trying to figure out who poisoned one of the presidents back in the early 1800's. He's dead, the person(s) who did it are dead, and so are their children.
Oh, I guess we'll have to give reparations like the BS with the blacks over slavery.

Common Sense for Patents (5, Interesting)

dsginter (104154) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829470)

What's truly amazing is that two men (perhaps more) were working, pretty much independently of each other, yet came up with the same basic idea in such a parallel fashion that they ended up arriving at the U.S. patent office withing HOURS of each other.

The system is essentially a "finders-keepers" deal, as it sits.

If you want to fix the patent system, then you will reconstruct it roughly as follows:
  • Accept all submissions that pass a basic sanity check
  • Keep all submissions secret for X [days|weeks|months]
  • If two submissions are received for the same "invention" within this timeframe, then disallow it as obvious
  • To help facilitate a baseline for obvious, allow the general public to submit their obvious ideas at no charge (no need to check this overwhelming amount of info - but keep it handy for posterity).
  • Require patent applicants to outline the level of investment necessary to realize a given patent - the system was designed to protect the investments of entrepreneurs so, if little to no investment is required, then there is no need for a patent on a given idea. Also, patent suit awards could be derived from this information accordingly.
Just some common sense, people.

Re:Common Sense for Patents (3, Funny)

ByOhTek (1181381) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829562)

A good, honest, rational solution rather than ranting and raging with little useful information and no add to the topic?

You must be new here.

I had a few of those thoughts myself, but not all of them. Nice (and short) read.

I would add that people should be allowed to submit evidence of prior-art after patent acceptance without having to go through legal processes (violating the patent, going to court, and then *hoping* to win).

Re:Common Sense for Patents (1)

BoomerSooner (308737) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829582)

Or better yet, just fucking get rid of it altogether. If it isn't physical, it shouldn't be patented, for example, 1 click buying. Are you kidding me? Amazing this world we've created.

Re:Common Sense for Patents (1)

dsginter (104154) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829638)

Or better yet, just fucking get rid of it altogether.

I'm trying to be pragmatic whilst addressing this urge - you simply cannot go up against the establishment with this sort of knee jerk. But this sentiment is what I am trying to address with my last point (e.g. - most software patents can be implemented in a few hours in mom's basement and, as such, are not patent-able under my suggested structure).

I don't know if "they" are listening, but the last time that I opined constructively [slashdot.org] on the patent system, there was a response [slashdot.org] . I don't know if someone had the same idea but, hey, it is nice to think that just maybe they are looking for an honest solution.

Yeah - and maybe I'm a Chinese jet pilot.

Re:Common Sense for Patents (1)

blincoln (592401) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829984)

If it isn't physical, it shouldn't be patented

Is (for example) a software algorithm for controlling packet routing really that different than a mechanical device which controls fuel flow in an internal combustion engine? They're both just making logical decisions, even though one is more analogue than the other.

Re:Common Sense for Patents (2, Insightful)

eln (21727) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829608)

The funny thing about common sense is it's not so common. Also, big ideas tend to fall apart during the implementation stage.

# Accept all submissions that pass a basic sanity check
What exactly is a basic sanity check? Does the patent "make sense"? To who? As you can see from some of the patents out there, the patent office already accepts pretty much everything.

# Keep all submissions secret for X [days|weeks|months]
Okay, that's a nice idea, but it would be difficult to enforce. Even if you could enforce it, you would have all sorts of conspiracy claims about the patent office burying patent applications related to ways to put oil companies out of business or whatever.

# If two submissions are received for the same "invention" within this timeframe, then disallow it as obvious
That seems awfully harsh. Just because two people come up with the same idea around the same time doesn't make it obvious to the general public, or even to people in the same field. Hell, for all you know one of the applicants could have stolen the idea from the other one.

# To help facilitate a baseline for obvious, allow the general public to submit their obvious ideas at no charge (no need to check this overwhelming amount of info - but keep it handy for posterity).
Coming up with an idea (ie, wouldn't a flying car kick ass) and coming up with a way to actually implement it (something you could file a patent on) are two very different things. For every great idea, there are probably thousands of people who came up with the idea independently of each other, but only a few (or even one) that managed to figure out how to make it work. Patents are not just ideas.

# Require patent applicants to outline the level of investment necessary to realize a given patent - the system was designed to protect the investments of entrepreneurs so, if little to no investment is required, then there is no need for a patent on a given idea. Also, patent suit awards could be derived from this information accordingly.
Even if an applicant could accurately come up with these numbers, who decides how much investment is required for an idea to be patentable? For an individual garage investor, 10 or 20 grand may be a huge investment constituting their entire life savings, but it's nothing to a large corporation. Once you set a minimum level of investment, you can bet the large corporations will seek to push it as high as possible in order to make it impossible for a small inventor to do anything with a patentable idea without massive outside investment.

Re:Common Sense for Patents (1)

mea37 (1201159) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829818)

If two people are working on a problem, and both reach similar solutions in a short time frame, that makes the solution obvious? Hardly.

Using public submissions of "ideas" as a baseline for "obvious"? How does that work? If X,XXX people state the problem, that somehow makes the solution more obvious? Or do you not know that the patent covers the solution and not the problem? A lot of people don't seem to know that...

Look, if you don't want to have a patent system, just say so.

Re:Common Sense for Patents (1)

russotto (537200) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829886)

? Or do you not know that the patent covers the solution and not the problem? A lot of people don't seem to know that...
The patent office doesn't know that. That's why "patenting the goal" has become a real problem.

Re:Common Sense for Patents (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21829944)

Or do you not know that the patent covers the solution and not the problem? A lot of people don't seem to know that...
Including your patent office, which kind of moots your point.

Re:Common Sense for Patents (1)

dsginter (104154) | more than 6 years ago | (#21830024)

If two people are working on a problem, and both reach similar solutions in a short time frame, that makes the solution obvious? Hardly.

Agreed - I think that it makes the solution "less than innovative". Thanks for that feedback.

Using public submissions of "ideas" as a baseline for "obvious"? How does that work?

You simply allow people to submit applications for solutions to become "public-domain patents" without charge. The current barrier-to-entry in the patent system creates a void that facilitates frivolous patents. This eliminates that barrier-to-entry.

Look, if you don't want to have a patent system, just say so.

I do want to have a patent system because I have many ideas that could make me wealthy. I'm just trying to fix it to facilitate innovation instead of thwarting it. Right now, if I want to make some software, then I might run into 10,000 related patents and patent applications. If each of these takes me an average of 30 minutes to inspect, license and/or work around, then I am out 5000 hours - that is 2.5 years @ 40 hours per week. There is no facilitation of innovation here - just protection of the wealthy.

This is why the big software companies have a strict no-patent-research policy.

Re:Common Sense for Patents (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21829988)

I would add another requirement:

All submissions must cover the mechanics, not the idea.

So, you can patent a perpetual motion device, if you can make one that works. You cant, however, patent a perpetual motion device if you don't have a working one. Thus, you cant take patents out for the sole purpose of trolling on those that perform the actual research and implementation.

Re:Common Sense for Patents (1)

shummer_mc (903125) | more than 6 years ago | (#21830062)

I would add to that the idea that only PEOPLE can own patents-- not companies. If a company bankrolls the R&D, then the chief scientist should own the patent.

Also, "realize a given patent" is pretty vague. Does that mean "establish a reasonable market for the product?" Does that mean "produce a prototype?" Or, does it mean "to produce the machinery that will produce many products that can be sold?" The devil's in the details, I guess.

I like your ideas, though.

Re:Common Sense for Patents (1)

Znork (31774) | more than 6 years ago | (#21830078)

"If you want to fix the patent system"

As long as you retain the monopoly nature of the patent system it's unfixable. It's like arguing about how the Soviet state-run monopoly system could have been made to work if only comittee meetings were open and the public had an idea box.

It's not the ease or difficulty with which you can obtain a patent that causes the problem; it's the fact that it gives you the power to prevent anyone else from doing the same thing.

Fixing the patent system inevitably means you have to stop funding it by handing out monopoly taxation rights and instead fund it within the state budget. If we need to finance invention beyond the free market competetiveness incentives (which I'm not at all certain of), then we should actually put the pricetag on paper instead of pretending it doesnt cost just because it's hidden as a privatized taxation form.

Once the patent system (as an innovation incentive system) as a whole has an actual budget the rest of the problems are easy to work out, as every player in the system would suddenly have an incentive to see an equitable distribution and granting scheme.

Re:Common Sense for Patents (3, Insightful)

cpt kangarooski (3773) | more than 6 years ago | (#21830148)

Accept all submissions that pass a basic sanity check

I'm not sure what this means.

Keep all submissions secret for X [days|weeks|months]

Oh, I disagree. I think that the PTO should publish all submissions immediately, regardless of whether or not they ultimately are patented. First, because government business should always be done in the open if at all possible. Second, because if an inventor tries to submit an invention and only later withdraws it (perhaps after he decides he'd rather not publish at all) then I don't see why we should honor his wishes to such an extent that he can avoid publication. Third, because rival inventors should be able to be informed about what the PTO is actually doing on a day-to-day basis.

If two submissions are received for the same "invention" within this timeframe, then disallow it as obvious

Well, that would be grossly different from what obviousness has meant in the past. Traditionally, an invention is obvious if any person having ordinary skill in the art (e.g. a generic electrical engineer) and a comprehensive knowledge of prior art and absolutely no imagination whatsoever, could reasonably have made the invention at that time.

That two people have a brilliant idea at the same time isn't obviousness, it's just coincidence.

To help facilitate a baseline for obvious, allow the general public to submit their obvious ideas at no charge (no need to check this overwhelming amount of info - but keep it handy for posterity).

Why? And who cares? Ideas are not patentable; only inventions are. An invention might have originated from an idea, but it is far more mature. Basically, an idea is pie-in-the-sky wishing, while an invention can actually work. People dreamt of flying via machines since classical Greece, at least, but that doesn't mean that that should have meant anything when we finally figured it out.

Require patent applicants to outline the level of investment necessary to realize a given patent - the system was designed to protect the investments of entrepreneurs so, if little to no investment is required, then there is no need for a patent on a given idea. Also, patent suit awards could be derived from this information accordingly.


I disagree. The application process fulfills this role already. It's time-consuming to file for a patent, and often somewhat costly. This means that if an inventor doesn't himself think that the invention is economically worth the trouble, he won't bother, and the invention will just be in the public domain rapidly, if anything happens. Since you're only increasing the applicant's burden, this won't change anyway. If he feels that he can recoup the costs of getting the patent, plus make enough of a profit that it outweighs his best alternative, then he'll pursue one. You don't need to do anything here, and for God's sake, you don't want to weed out the starry-eyed inventors who have no grasp on finances. We want their inventions to be publicized, regardless of whether they're really viable.

There's a number of things that can improve the system, but not these, IMO.

Re:The most interesting thing about this controver (2, Informative)

arivanov (12034) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829502)

Yep. And if stuff like that did not make you pause the fact that you gave an example which was simultaneously invented by at least two people should.

Radio was invented nearly simultaneously by Marconi and Popov in 1895 and surprise surprise it was all based on a work by German (Hertz) from a few years before that. Similarly, while Marconi invented very little (most inventions were done by Hertz, Popov and Ducretes) he gets the credit because he successfully drove it through the patent system.

Yet another history repeating... http://www.stlyrics.com/lyrics/theressomethingaboutmary/historyrepeating.htm [stlyrics.com]

Re:The most interesting thing about this controver (2, Informative)

rs79 (71822) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829570)

"

The patent was later given to Tesla.

I worked for the Gray Telephone and Telepgraph company in Los Angeles in the 80s. It had been renamed "Teleautograph" and made those funny "telewriter" things. They were getting out of that and selling fax machiens and over the power line email terminals when I left in 1989.

Patents are still a useful concept (1)

Nerdposeur (910128) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829534)

Even if many inventions were actually the result of several people rushing to create the same thing, doesn't the possibility of fame and fortune help to drive all of them? Patents help to create that possibility - that the inventor will get to make a fortune, rather than having his/her idea copied and dominated by people who simply have better manufacturing capacities.

Only one runner wins a race, but all the runners compete with the prize in mind. I don't think you can assume that since there are many runners, the prize isn't important.

I do understand that patent trolling makes the whole system look useless, but I think that reform is the answer, not abandonment.

The X-prizes are an example (1)

Nerdposeur (910128) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829558)

I should have said this in my parent post, but the X Prizes are a good example. Would teams compete so hard to design efficient cards if there were no prize money, and if big auto companies could simply take their designs without paying for them?

We just had a story on the Automotive X Prize [xprize.org] recently. I'm excited to see what it will produce.

Re:Patents are still a useful concept (1)

Znork (31774) | more than 6 years ago | (#21830264)

"Patents help to create that possibility - that the inventor will get to make a fortune"

Eh, if you look at the patent system today you'd do financially better serving fries with that and playing the lottery.

"I don't think you can assume that since there are many runners, the prize isn't important."

As the prize is mainly the right to trip anyone running in the next race you're unlikely to end up with a net benefit. Instead you end up with a lot of runners injured on the track, some prize winners offering protection rackets promising not to trip the runners who pay, and a whole lot of angry people.

Re:The most interesting thing about this controver (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21829838)

Did Massachusetts recognise Cerruti as the inventor of the telephone?

Re:The most interesting thing about this controver (4, Insightful)

LWATCDR (28044) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829864)

I just wish that we could put an end to the one answer myth.
It is both.
The phonograph is actually a prime example of the Great Man idea. No one was really working on the idea of recording sound until Edison invented the phonograph.
The incandescent light bulb, the airplane, and radio where all inventions that where well on the way.
The real answer is that sometimes it is a brilliant flash from the blue and other times it is a lot of great people working on a problem and one of them gets there first.

how timely (5, Funny)

Hognoxious (631665) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829188)

Brought to you by the isn't-this-just-a-little-bit-too-late department.

Re:how timely (1)

smitty_one_each (243267) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829270)

Nah. When you've been on the receiving end of injustice, the better-late-than-never rule applies.

Re:how timely (1)

asCii88 (1017788) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829668)

Remember when the last Pope said Copernico was right. That was late!

Re:how timely (1)

Hognoxious (631665) | more than 6 years ago | (#21830282)

Copernico was certainly late (and not in the 'for lunch' sense) by then.

Nonsense (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21829196)

This site pretty much refutes this idea.

http://tinyurl.com/yv2dc2 [tinyurl.com]

That's interesting. (4, Funny)

wcrowe (94389) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829198)

So he's sort of the Bill Gates of the 19th century.

Re:That's interesting. (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21829298)

Patent Thief? Graham Bell. I think this is a common "american way" of doing. Do you remember who invented the first aeroplane? The americans think that was some brothers (?Grimm Brothers?).

Re:That's interesting. (1)

$RANDOMLUSER (804576) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829418)

Do you remember who invented the first aeroplane? The americans think that was some brothers (?Grimm Brothers?).
That's a canard.

Re:That's interesting. (1, Informative)

franksands (938435) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829648)

That would be the Wright Brothers. And although their invention was sooner, it needed a catapult to be pushed into the air. Santos Dummont was the first person to build and pilot a vehicle that could take off, fly and land without any outside help.

And the legacy continues to this day (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21829310)

And Bell's legacy continues in both spirit and in deed by all of corporate America to this very day.

Re:That's interesting. (4, Informative)

deadweight (681827) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829578)

Marconi *WAS* Bill Gates more so than anyone but Bill himself. He took existing technology and used clever legal maneuvering to build a monopoly. he used his wealth to buy out or destroy any competition. Radio was NOT invented by him. Tesla did it, but was more interested in transmitting power than information. A number of others had working radio inventions too, but no one saw the commercial prospects clearly. Marconi did see them and the legal/semi-legal shenanigans would have brought a smile to Bill G. He didn't SELL radios, he LEASED them to ship owners and provided the operators. These operators were told NOT to communicate with ship or shore stations run by any other company but Marconi! Doesn't that sound familiar! The scheme fell apart when the Titanic inspired the first SOLAS convention and rules for wireless. Read Thunderstruck for the amazing details of all this. Ham and CB operators will get a laugh at the fact that intentional QRM started basically with the invention of the second radio :(

Read the patent number! (4, Funny)

192939495969798999 (58312) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829236)

Bell Stamp: I invented the telephone.

Gray: You stole it from me, Elisha Gray.

Bell: Read the patent number, bitch!

Antonio Meucci invented the t (3, Interesting)

a_n_d_e_r_s (136412) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829246)

Long before the mentioned men 'invented' the telephone in 1834 italian Antonio Meucci invented it - that was aknowledged by the US House of Representatives in 2002 - "if Meucci had been able to pay the $10 fee to maintain the caveat after 1874, no patent could have been issued to Bell"

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Meucci [wikipedia.org]

Re:Antonio Meucci invented the t (5, Insightful)

elrous0 (869638) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829322)

Anytime an invention is mentioned, it seems to become an ethnic an nationalistic pissing contest. It starts with a reference to an American inventing something, then some European chimes in with "A European did it first." Then some black nationalist chimes in with "It was actually invented by a black man working for the so-called inventor." And on..and on. So, I'm not going to get into a pissing contest with you. But I will point out the illogic of the idea that someone invented this almost a full 50 years before anyone else, and quote the wikipedia entry on the gentleman at hand:

However, many modern scholars outside of Italy do not recognize the claims that Meucci's device had any bearing on the development of the telephone. Tomas Farley also writes that, "Nearly every scholar agrees that Bell and Watson were the first to transmit intelligible speech by electrical means. Others transmitted a sound or a click or a buzz but our boys [Bell and Watson] were the first to transmit speech one could understand."

Re:Antonio Meucci invented the t (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21829410)

Others transmitted a sound or a click or a buzz but our boys [Bell and Watson] were the first to transmit speech one could understand."

Stephen Mitchell Yeates [columbia.edu] had the first telephone call where voice could be distinguished. More than 10 years before Bell claimed the same.

Re:Antonio Meucci invented the t (1)

techpawn (969834) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829454)

In the end you can claim a lot of things, you can even get people to back you up on your claim. That doesn't make it true. The only people who really know the truth are the people directly involved, all others are just securing their own place in history as a bookmark for an event.

Who invented what pissing contest. (1)

Hamster Lover (558288) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829618)

Thank you. I was going to comment along the same lines but I also wanted to point out that there is more to "inventing" than simply conceptualizing an idea, you have to make it practical and economical as well. John Logie Baird created the first working television system which he designed around electromechanical principles, but when the money men saw the superiority of an all-electronic system his invention died off. Like so many innovators before him, he wasn't able to make it practical.

Similarly, Nikola Tesla developed a working wireless system well before Marconi, but because Tesla essentially left the technology to sit on the shelf it took Marconi to popularize and promote it.

Re:Antonio Meucci invented the t (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21829958)

It happens in America too. I swear in high school, you are practically taught that the modern car was invented by Henry Ford. His name was bought up again and again, while you ask people who Karl Benz is, they shrug their shoulders.

Re:Antonio Meucci invented the t (2, Informative)

boris111 (837756) | more than 6 years ago | (#21830290)

A good teacher will tell you that Ford was the first to make it practical for the common man by making an assembly line for it. Every history teacher I had made that distinction.

Re:Antonio Meucci invented the t (2, Funny)

colin_s_guthrie (929758) | more than 6 years ago | (#21830126)

And it is here that I should point out that Bell was Scottish (born in my own fair City of Edinburgh) which makes him European (tho' arguably not at the time!). That's the trouble with everything that's got a modicum of thought/intelligence behind it - Americans' always think that they invented everything when it's clear to all those who looked, that the Scots invented the modern world [amazon.co.uk] . Telephone, Television, Penicillin and all the rest of it.

Try peeing higher than that :p

(Now I grant you you may have been referring to Grey, but I'm ignoring that due to the context of your Wikipedia quote).

Re:Antonio Meucci invented the t (1)

geekoid (135745) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829326)

Too bad the patent office is just an agency that says you registered the patent a x time, and not some magic house of pixie's. Cause if you can show you had it earlier, you get the credit.

Ah yes... (0)

imstanny (722685) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829262)

Now that you mention it, this news rings bell.

There are so many victims! (4, Funny)

FredFredrickson (1177871) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829274)

I'm another victim of this type of fraud. It seems that there needs to be a safeguard against this type of thing.

I invented a little button that allows you to buy things by clicking a single button once [slashdot.org] , but I keep getting threatened with law suits!! THIS NEEDS TO STOP! I WANT MY ROYALTIES! Damn you patent squatters!

Leibniz now Reis (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21829276)

first Leibniz, now this Reis guy. What's up with the German's and saying "oh look at us vee did it loooooong ago"?

Actually... (4, Insightful)

Anita Coney (648748) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829286)

...every major invention was stolen from me. Any day now I'm going to invent everything, including a time machine. I'll get stuck in the past when everyone will start stealing my ideas. I'll die penniless in 1926.

Re:Actually... (1)

elrous0 (869638) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829436)

John Titor? Are you back?

Re:Actually... (1)

Anita Coney (648748) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829492)

Nope, he's actually my father, sister, and 2nd cousin, twice removed. Don't ask me to explain. Thanks.

Re:Actually... (1)

andphi (899406) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829664)

No, no, no. You have it all wrong.

Everything of any significance was invented by Chairman Mao Ze Dong and also by President for Life Kim Il Sung and also by the great working people of [insert socialist dictatorship here]. In a few years, we might be able to add would-be President for Life Hugo "No, Really, I'm just like Simon Bolivar" Chavez to this list of pioneering inventor-liberators.

Grey Area (1)

techpawn (969834) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829288)

We're debating patents how many decades old when there are patents now that are obvious rip offs and trolling? Yes, this is an interesting historical debate about how broken the patent system IS and has been but don't we have more pressing current matters with the patent office?

Re:Grey Area (2, Funny)

Intron (870560) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829452)

Those who don't study history are doomed to reinvent it. And then patent it. ?? And then profit!

Smacks of Conspiracy idiocy (1)

geekoid (135745) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829292)

Really. There is a missing time, and then government official help him, cause they are all corrupt, and then evil lawyers came in to shut everyone up.
The more you look at it the more people that would have been involved.
Please. How about some, oh I don't know, evidence.

Yeah, but Gray didn't invent the telephone.... (5, Insightful)

tjstork (137384) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829296)

Even the article concedes that Gray's invention wasn't for spoken words over the phone, it was for multiplexing morse code signals to make a more efficient telegraph. Sure, Gray may have been the better technologist, but Bell should get some larger props for seeing the point that you wouldn't need telegraphs any more at all. Saying that Gray invented the telephone because Bell borrowed some of his ideas is like saying that Reimann invented Relativity because Einstein used some of his math. In both cases, it was the application and vision of a technology that is more interesting than the mechanism itself. Neither Bell nor Gray's inventions are even relevant now, but the idea of spoken communications at a distance is.

Re:Yeah, but Gray didn't invent the telephone.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21829746)

Neither Bell nor Gray's inventions are even relevant now, but the idea of spoken communications at a distance is.

Last I recall, we still transmit data over copper wire.

Re:Yeah, but Gray didn't invent the telephone.... (1)

MightyYar (622222) | more than 6 years ago | (#21830022)

They were transmitting "data" over copper wire long before Bell.

this is still news? (1)

rucs_hack (784150) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829316)

I thought this was established historical fact. What with the patent clerk who let Bell have the patent owning up and all.

I've known about this for years, since I was a teenager.

Re:this is still news? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21829512)

:give cookie:

Rubbish (2, Insightful)

gilesjuk (604902) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829330)

A patent can be on an idea not yet realised, so long as you detail the process involved.

So Bell's patent could have been a process to transmit sound along wires. He didn't need to prove it was possible.

There's been many patents lodged that haven't been made into a product, only for someone else to implement the same idea years later.

Re:Rubbish (1)

SCHecklerX (229973) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829710)

which seems quite broken, IMNSHO. Patents should protect people who plan to actually do something with their invention. At least have a prototype for crying out loud.

Edison did almost the same thing (1)

frietbsd (943773) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829402)

Edison just patented the idea of running current through a wire to make it hot and glow in that way. He wasn't original in that aspect, it was one of basic science demonstrations to burn up a wire with electricity. He just patented it for use of lighting, but he did not have a working lightbulb or anything else beyond the common science demo. Then when someone else invented de glass lightbulb to prevent oxidation, he claimed his wire glowing patent and became rich and famous.

You've got the story wrong (1)

IvyKing (732111) | more than 6 years ago | (#21830188)

The idea of heating a wire to incandescance predated Edison's light bulb by at least a couple of decades. The problem was that the filaments of the previous light bulbs had such a low resistance that it wasn't practical to use a remote generator. What Edison did do was find a material (charred bamboo) that had both a high resistance and withstood very high temperatures. These bulbs could run off 120VDC - which is why the US residential voltage is 120V. He was aided in this process by the then recent development of a mercury vacuum pump


What most conventional histories of Edison and the light bulb ignore is that Edison's group developed a lot of the infrastructure for an electric lighting utility. These included improved dynamos, metering systems, etc.

Re:Edison did almost the same thing (1)

tsjaikdus (940791) | more than 6 years ago | (#21830302)

Edison just patented the idea of running current through a wire to make it hot and glow in that way. He wasn't original in that aspect, it was one of basic science demonstrations to burn up a wire with electricity. He just patented it for use of lighting, but he did not have a working lightbulb or anything else beyond the common science demo. Then when someone else invented de glass lightbulb to prevent oxidation, he claimed his wire glowing patent and became rich and famous.

I think Edison became rich and famous because he patented the bulb as a whole (next to the bamboo wire, the socket and I don't know what). He patented everything, unlike e.g. Swan. And even more important, he invented the complete industry, meters, switches, up to the whole steamengine power plant delivering 110V DC to the customers. Again Swan didn't do that. Swan lit a house by means of a waterwheel. Interesting, but not exactly an industry.

I now have more respect for Bell (5, Interesting)

tkrotchko (124118) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829494)

Today I have more respect for Bell.

Check out the Wright Brother's patent story for how the pursuit of patents and copyrights is the ruin of more than more inventor.

http://www.amazon.com/Unlocking-Sky-Hammond-Curtiss-Airplane/dp/0060956151/ref=pd_bbs_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1198767099&sr=8-2 [amazon.com]

From the review at Amazon:
    "The first flyers were so secretive and desperate to cash in on their invention that their behavior actually "retarded" the development of aviation."

The Wright Brothers felt they had "invented flight". They were trying to interpret their patents as broadly as possible. Eventually, WW I forced the US Government to force the Wrights to share the patents with other companies. The Wright brothers did not come to a happy end. That part of the story is never told in elementary school history.

Patents and copyrights are broken. They've always been broken, and I suspect they will be broken to a certain extent. They just happen to be extraordinarily broken at the moment.

Benazir Bhutto Successful Assassination - 27 Dec 2 (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21829666)

Re:Benazir Bhutto Successful Assassination - 27 De (1)

MightyYar (622222) | more than 6 years ago | (#21830068)

What an odd hobby you have.

Re:I now have more respect for Bell (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21830198)

For many years I have been pointing out to anyone who would listen that:

The Wright brothers did NOT invent the airplane
They were only first at ANYTHING if you take a very specific view of what constitutes an airplane
Their particular engineering advance (wing warping) did not scale, and was very difficult to control. It provided NO influence on ANY later aviation development.
The brothers ONLY contribution to aviation was to ruin American development so much with legal wrangles that when WW1 came we had NO fighter aircraft and had to buy them in from France.

It's good to know that this is finally being recognised...

More sad Liberal propaganda (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21829528)

Sorry folks, but the free market decided where the telephone originated from. To even hint otherwise is to foolishly doubt the perfect, well-oiled machine that is our free market system, plus you're just hating America. You see, people aren't corrupt. Certainly people with connections, corporate, government, or otherwise aren't corrupt. The free market is self correcting and will automatically counter any sort of dishonesty and fraud and what is left is simply the best of all possible worlds.

Reis (1)

gurps_npc (621217) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829594)

The poster discussed Mr. Reiss. While the very intelligent Mr Reis produced a machine that while it could transmit sounds, it was of such low quality that it took someone significant training to be able to understand what was being said. It was not a real telephone, as the phone in telephone refers to speaking. It was more a tele-audio, as it could transmit sounds, if not clearly enough to understand.

This is not to insult him, Mr. Reis was a relatively undereducated man, and deserves more recognition for his brillance.

whoever invented it the phone is a PITA (0, Offtopic)

Grampaw Willie (631616) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829748)

whoever invented the phone is a PITA and their phone is a PITA

rudest gadget anyone ever came up with

why is it the phone gets priority over:

-- the person in your office talking with you

-- your current task you are working on

why is it the phone allows rude people to thrust themselves into your office and even into your home?

the phone is definitely a modern invention that was NOT progress

Samuel Morse had it right

Right... (1)

maillemaker (924053) | more than 6 years ago | (#21830146)

Next time you need a cop, ambulance, or a fireman, be sure to break out the signal lamp. :)

Not much to say (1)

iminplaya (723125) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829804)

The system works.

Lawyers, guns, and money... the shit has hit the fan

mod uP (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21829902)

abou7 700 users [goat.cx]

eh...who cares, the system was and is corrupt. (2, Insightful)

haplo21112 (184264) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829918)

The patent system is now and always has been corrupt. Bell deserves the credit in my mind because at least he built something and demonstrated making it work. This is the long existing problem with the patent system. Simply put make a real product, make it work, show it working and make it available OR : NO PATENT FOR YOU!

The system needs to be reformed, any patent help by someone not actually using that patent to make available an actual product based on that patent needs to loose the patent. DONE. Going forward NO patents for anything that doesn't actually exist, and work. You have oh say 5 years from the filing of the patent to put the damn thing on the market, or it becomes invalid. If it goes off the market the patent also becomes invalid.

No more of these patent IP holding companies that come out of no place when someone works up a brilliant concept to which they can then under some insanely broad banner claim rights to the idea.

Lotsa inaccuracies (3, Informative)

Ancient_Hacker (751168) | more than 6 years ago | (#21829934)

First of all, the Gray patent was for sending multiple telegraph signals over one wire, nowadays known as analog frequency-division multiplexing. Bell either had the same idea, or borrowed parts of Gray's ideas, and by accident, made a telephone. It seems a bit of a stretch to call Gray's idea a "telephone", as it was more like sending beep-boop-bork tones over one wire. Nothing to do with voice. ANd it's also a stretch to claim Bell "stole" the Telephone idea. Independent inventions happen all the time.

You mean... (2, Insightful)

tomcode (261182) | more than 6 years ago | (#21830044)

He really didn't invent the chair with extra legs and the electric hammer?
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