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09.03.10

The Truth About Thomas Edison and New Species of Patent Trolls

Posted in Europe, Patents at 2:50 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Thomas Edison

Summary: A look back at very abusive behaviour from a patent office icon; new critique of the patent process

WHEN most people hear the name Thomas Edison they think of a great scientist and inventor, not a ruthless businessman. Edison was somewhat of a raider, who became legendary for the number of patents he had amassed. Just how inventive was he really? Well, actually, he had the habit of taking other people’s ideas and claiming credit/monopoly for them after slight modifications. Edison essentially hacked the patent office, just like some of today’s patent trolls. This is a subject which we alluded to before [1, 2].

Edison probably deserves to be remembered as a shrewd businessman (like Bill Gates and his publicity/taxation tricks), not an icon of scientific ingenuity. Ars Technica has this new article about Edison and it’s far from flattering.

Thomas Edison’s plot to hijack the movie industry

[...]

But what ultimately did the Edison monopoly in was the assumption that its legal/technological dominance over the trade, and its moral stance, would trump the public’s demand for ever more creative motion pictures. Unlike the independents, the MPCC system did not invest in its network. Consumers would simply have to watch Edison Trust fare, the monopoly’s principals figured.

[...]

Thus the Edison Trust was sunk, even before a federal court agreed with prosecutors that the Patents Company and General Film had broken every antitrust principle in the book, “terrorizing exchanges and exhibitors” and driving away competitors by “arbitrary, oppressive, and high-handed methods.”

The sage took his defeat like a good sport. He was, after all, still America’s beloved inventor. At the end of the conflict, Edison dropped by to dedicate Universal’s new all-electric movie studio, now located in a pleasant southern California town called Hollywood.

Take heed, tech giants of today. Some of your companies or services aren’t much older than the Edison Trust was when it collapsed. How much of your current business strategy is based on offering new and original products, and how much of it is based on laws, courts, and the fact that you got there first?

“Show me a thoroughly satisfied man and I will show you a failure,” Thomas Edison once warned. He ought to know.

Slashdot has this new entry right now — one that’s titled “A New Species of Patent Troll” even though it covers a differently titled piece on a disturbing drama around patents and marking.

Patents have a life span of 17 or 20 years. To keep them valid, companies must pay maintenance fees every four years. Once they expire, the holder is expected to remove the numbers from products.

Why go through all this trouble? Is there truly an economic benefit to society as a whole? Similar questions ought to be asked about CIIs/software patents, which increasingly bring Edison-like abusers to the field of programming. The problem is, the lobbyists from the United States try to expand these to Europe, triggering reactions of many who saw and learned from the errors of the USPTO. Just days ago the president of the FFII spotted some nice short propaganda containing the word “technical” 45 times at a high level of density, e.g.:

However, it is often difficult to separate a claim into technical and non-technical features, and an invention may have technical aspects which are hidden in a largely non-technical context

“Technical” is one of those words that are used excessively by lawyers (another one is “invention”) to justify their paperwork and outrageous fees that they extract from work of actual creators.

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2 Comments

  1. twitter said,

    September 3, 2010 at 5:39 am

    Gravatar

    The Ars piece was interesting but it was written like a Rorschach test. People who are keeping up with the non free software patent apocalypse will see lessons for Microsoft, Apple and Oracle. People listening to Microsoft’s weekly “screw Google” meeting will read, “We have here an object lesson that the Internet empires of our time ought to consider.” and think of Google. It’s pretty clear who the modern, clueless patent abusers are, so why does Ars obfuscate and fail to name them?

    Google has mostly been the target of bogus lawsuits. A quick search for “Google patent lawsuit” at Yahoo (Bing) turns up no lawsuit launched by Google. That’s based on the summaries because the articles Bing turns up are all from sites so Microsoft dominated that they don’t work with the 3.5 branch of Konqueror.

    There are other historical examples of USPTO abuse retarding industry but nothing compares to the software patent fraud. Glass bottle companies are probably the worst, where there were only two makers of glass bottle machines in the US which ruthlessly controlled bottling companies that were, in turn, equally ruthless monopolies like Coke. The two machine companies had a web of patents they used against everyone else and each other. Automobile patents have been mentioned here and elswhere recently. Few of the patents abused by those companies are as ridiculous as the flood of business method patents created by the State Street decision that made a loophole for business method patents implemented by computer. Because computers are essential to all business today, the tax on society and audacity of the non free software fraud is much greater than the burden imposed by any single abusive industry of a century ago.

    Dr. Roy Schestowitz Reply:

    Coke is now masquerading under more brand names, marketing these as “organic” for about 10 times the cost.

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