Arts & Culture

The Ira Glass Infatuation Post/ This American Life Review: When Patents Attack!

Because sometimes patents just attack, and who are you going to call? Answer: Ira Glass. Read More

By / July 28, 2011
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Good old Lord Byron hit the theme of today’s episode on the nose: “This is the patent age of new inventions for killing bodies, and for saving souls. All propagated with the best intentions.”

Patents, the ownership of ideas in the name of individual financial gain and fame. It is the grill of the artist, the mark of individual success. A US office with the mantra, “To promote the useful arts and sciences,” provides the utopic petri dish in which people are to be properly incentivized to share their ideas and inventions. But does that environment actually exist, or are creatives sitting like Chicago drills, uninspired to (pro)create?

As Ira brings to the surface in When Patents Attack!, patents may actually be stifling that flow of creativity. In the prologue, the phenomenon of the Peter Detkin-coined term patent troll in Silicon Valley is explored, and it is not Amelie-cute, but rather, quite possibly, the culprit.

Act 1: There’s a patent for toast? “Bread refreshing method”

Laura Sydell and Alex Blumberg give us a very investigative episode delving into the not-so-well-oiled machine that is the patent world of Silicon Valley.

Most interesting is a series of conversations at South Park, a Silicon Valley watering hole that is much like Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern for the Chicago Tribune, right across the street, and a grounding place in which ideas can bounce freely. In this case, the topic of the patent troll is thrown around, and urban legends abound. Particularly a keyword for this episode and in future news scans is the business Intellectual Ventures, an alleged/ infamous troll that likes to say they are “promoting innovation by supporting inventors,” in hitting the clueless creative types with some business sense and the ability to make bank. But does theory match practice? Unable to find many concrete examples of the inventor on the rise after IV intervention, the team zooms in on one very elusive case, that of Chris Crawford, an innovator with a patent for that pop-up on your computer asking if you’d like to download new updates for your software. Which is compared to getting a patent for toasting bread: general, stale.

One bystander emotes, “Every single patent is nothing but crap.” Another, Chris Sacca, an investor who helps companies like Twitter to get off the ground, has some pretty fair insight: “We’re at a point in the state of intellectual property where existing patents probably cover every single behavior that’s happening on the internet and our mobile phones today…so I have no doubt that the average Silicon Valley startup, or even medium size company no matter how truly innovative they are, I have no doubt that aspects of what they are doing violate patents that are out there right now. and that’s what’s fundamentally broken about the system right now.”

Secrets in the backend prove that efforts toward transparency are bullshit, and hinder the abilities of patents to actually serve the creative communities they were intended for.

While a right-brain stifling topic, at least the IDM tunes keep the juices flowing.

Act 2: A protection scheme isn’t that credible unless a few butcher shops burn down now and again.

Trying to contact Chris Crawford, part two. The Scoobydoo-esque NPR fam continue inquiring within, although it’s hard to say within what as they seek closure to the case of the misplaced patent. As with all episodes hijacked by the Planet Money team, this investigative hour requires your utmost attention to make up your mind on the issue.

To simplify the argument, as long as loyalties lie with the propelling of innovative ideas and actually providing good incentives to inventors to invent more stuff, everything else is free game. But, trading in patents rather than inventions on the part of companies like Intellectual Ventures adds a level of middleman that promises suits, bureaucracy, and cracks through which scrilla is lost. The understatement of the year? “Litigation is a highly inefficient way to do licensing.”

Lone comrades screwed by the system? Where is the Bolshevik class of the creative professionals willing to protect the individuals en masse in this kind of terrain?