The Wright brothers’ critical insight was the importance of “lateral stability” — that is, wingtip-to-wingtip stability — to flight. And their great innovation was something they called “wing warping,” in which they used a series of pulleys that caused the wingtips on one side of the airplane to go up when the wingtips on the other side were pulled down. That allowed the Wrights’ airplane to make banked turns and to correct itself when it flew into a gust of wind.
But when the Wrights applied for a patent, they didn’t seek one that just covered wing warping; their patent covered any means to achieve lateral stability. There is no question what the Wrights sought: nothing less than a monopoly on the airplane business — every airplane ever manufactured, they believed, owed them a royalty. As Wilbur Wright, who was both the more domineering and the more inventive of the two brothers, put it in a letter: “It is our view that morally the world owes its almost universal system of lateral control entirely to us. It is also our opinion that legally it owes it to us.”
What was Curtiss doing in the meantime? In addition to coming up with the idea of adding wheels for easier takeoffs and landings, he invented an entirely different system for dealing with lateral stability, a system of flaps that went up and down and controlled the wings. (Airplane manufacturers today still use that basic insight.) The Wrights responded by filing a lawsuit, claiming that Curtiss was violating their patents. The litigation would consume them literally until the day Wilbur Wright died.
via Greed and the Wright Brothers – NYTimes.com.
The problem with the Intellectual Property is that it incentivizes people to sit on their laurels once they’ve captured an idea, so stiffles the next round of innovation. Most of these ideas aren’t nearly as revolutionary as you think, as even ground break ideas are typically simultaneously invented by independent groups. There is a great survey of this across multiple major inventions in human history in Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From.
Chalk one up for the enemies of patent trolls: The Supreme Court on Monday threw out a request for trial from alleged patent troll Soverain Software.
The case, called Soverain Software LLC. v. Newegg Inc., is one of three such cases the Supreme Court is expected to consider this year. While the Court will likely hear the remaining cases, which deal with finer points of patent law, its dismissal of Soverain speaks to the potential frivolousness of its claims.
via Supreme Court Sides With Newegg Against Patent Trolls | Inc.com.
Remember, Newegg took the hit to go and fight this in court, which very few entities have been willing to do, and that made the world better for all of us. Consider that next time you are considering purchasing computer equipment.
Interesting new paper on the cost of Patent Trolls in the US.
In the past, “non-practicing entities” (NPEs), popularly known as “patent trolls,” have helped small inventors profit from their inventions. Is this true today or, given the unprecedented levels of NPE litigation, do NPEs reduce innovation incentives? Using a survey of defendants and a database of litigation, this paper estimates the direct costs to defendants arising from NPE patent assertions. We estimate that firms accrued $29 billion of direct costs in 2011. Moreover, although large firms accrued over half of direct costs, most of the defendants were small or medium-sized firms, indicating that NPEs are not just a problem for large firms.
For reference, $29 billion is more than NASA’s budget ($19 billion in the same time period). This is a huge problem that has real impacts on our economy and our recovery.
From This American Life’s latest show:
In early July, the bankrupt tech company Nortel put its 6,000 patents up for auction as part of a liquidation. A bidding war broke out among Silicon Valley powerhouses. Google said it wanted the patents purely to defend against lawsuits and it was willing to spend over $3 billion to get them. That wasn’t enough, though.
The portfolio eventually sold to Apple and a consortium of other tech companies including Microsoft and Ericsson. The price tag: $4.5 billion dollars. Five times the opening bid. More than double what most people involved were expecting. The largest patent auction in history.
That’s $4.5 billion on patents that these companies almost certainly don’t want for their technical secrets. That $4.5 billion won’t build anything new, won’t bring new products to the shelves, won’t open up new factories that can hire people who need jobs. That’s $4.5 billion dollars that adds to the price of every product these companies sell you. That’s $4.5 billion dollars buying arms for an ongoing patent war.
The big companies — Google, Apple, Microsoft — will probably survive. The likely casualties are the companies out there now that no one’s ever heard of that could one day take their place.
This American Life did a bang up job taking Intellectual Ventures to task this weekend for basically being in the mafia business. It’s a pretty amazing story, especially when they try to find one of the “protected inventors” that IV claims it helped out. Well worth listening to.
“Would you like to play a game?”
It looks like the software patent cold war that we were in is over, and we’re now moving into a software patent hot war. Ars Technica has a piece on Paul Allen’s IP holding company suing 11 big internet giants. This comes after a number of large patent suits, including Oracle v Google, Nokia v Apple, Apple v HTC.
I’m hoping that we actually get another case in front of the supreme court for them to rethink punting on deciding on software patents.
Oracle was the opening keynote for Linuxcon this year, where they talked about how much they did for Linux and open source. The moment everyone had checked out of their hotel in Boston, they filed a massive patent suit against Google’s open source java like implementation in Android. Oracle, you can suck it.
This has led to a lot of virtual ink in the blogosphere on the subject, and you can see that for the most part, we all sit inside our tech valleys, unable to see the wider world over the hills. This is especially true for folks that have worked in the same kind of tech for a long time. Charles Nutter provides a really good background on what the Java space looks like, and gives his own thoughts on the matter. Much like Linux, Java is really just about everywhere, some times in surprising places.
The Java platform is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. And by big, I mean it’s everywhere.
There are three mainstream JVMs people know about: JRockit (WebLogic’s first and then Oracle’s after it acquired them), Hotspot (Which came to Sun through an acquisition and eventually became OpenJDK), and J9 (IBM’s own JVM, fully-licensed and with all its shots). Upon those three JVMs lives a gigantic world. If you want the details, there’s numerous studies and reports about the use of Java in all manner of business, from the hippest new startups (Twitter recently switched much of their stack to the JVM) to the oldest of the old financial concerns. It’s the favored choice for government server applications, the strongest not-quite-completely-Free managed runtime for open-source libraries and applications, and now with Android it’s rapidly becoming one of the strongest (if not the strongest) mobile OS platform (even though Android isn’t *really* Java, as I’ll get into later). You may love or hate Java, but I guarantee it’s part of your life in some way or another.
It’s a long read, but well worth your time. The why people hate Java section is particularly useful for people that hate Java. It may or may not change your mind, but it will at least give you a broader view.
Ars Technica has a great article on the history of the telescope. But there was something entirely non astronomy related that struck me:
In 1608, Hans Lipperhey in the Netherlands applied for a patent on a pair of lenses, one with a much shorter focal length than the other, arranged in a tube. He called it a “spyglass” as it allowed the observation of greatly distant events from a secluded retreat—Lipperhey noted that counting coins from afar was a suitable use. The patent was denied because the device was so very easily constructed.
The big breakthrough came when Galileo was informed of Lipperhey’s failure to secure a patent. He was certainly aware of the Venetian prowess in lens grinding, as well as work in optics that Kepler had done. Galileo decided to make such a device for himself, inspired by a mixture of Renaissance gung-ho and a desire to make his name. Presumably, he reasoned that a device able to magnify distant objects would also minimize the uncertainty in their position, providing an improved version of the wall quadrant.
That’s a frightening thought, and one I hadn’t known before. Had that patent been granted, we may never have had the revolution in science in 1609, because Galileo wouldn’t have jumped into the telescope manufacturing business. That work is what sealed the fate of the geocentric solar system, and became a great leap forward for all physical sciences.