Patents and Prior Art

The Future Of Medical Science
Credit: Geek and Poke / http://geekandpoke.typepad.com/geekandpoke/2007/07/the-future-of-m.html

As part of Extreme Blue, my team and I put in two patent applications. One of them was put on ice, and the other has been deemed publish. This is pretty cool! So I’ve been working on it since last week. The end is in sight – I hope.

This has meant reading a disgusting amount of patents and patent applications. At the time when we put together the proposals, and now as I try and write the paper. Randomly one of my search results was one about dismemberment.

Some of the patents I’ve read are very clear, and concise, and make sense. I read one from Google – that one was good. Some of them (particularly the applications) are utter nonsense; vague, unspecific, with unrestricted scope. The good ones are inspiring – “see, we did something worthwhile! People are in this space. It’s interesting!” – the bad ones? I feel like my brain is melting, that they are making me stupid, and that the biggest problem with patent trolls (yes I’ve come across some of their stuff) is the utter drivel they write that people actually working in that space have to suffer through reading.

The upside is that once this is done, and published, I’ll get to share what I spend the summer working on. Publishing is much faster than patenting, so that’s coming sooner. Also, I have mixed feelings about patents. Close to your own work, it seems obvious. But I can’t believe other people won’t have this same idea, independent of seeing what we did. I’m happy with this outcome.

But – I think you have to play the game that’s on. I don’t know any software engineers who are wholly in favour of patents, and patent trolls are widely thought to be complete scum. But I think there’s more credibility to argue against the system if you’ve been inside and looked at it. When someone with a stack of patents says to me, “I think there’s a problem” that carries more weight. Patent applications were part of the EB game. To opt out would be to let down my team. I would not do that.

I don’t really understand, how if our ethics stop us patenting, how that helps. The trolls won’t stop. In fact, won’t it be easier for them? When we patent, or publish, we create prior art that others can cite and build upon.

Back to the dismemberment patent – so ridiculous and far away from what I worked upon that I think it’s a safe example.

I might patent or publish a system for decapitation (as clearly outlined in patent X), which is combined with the sophisticated intravenous delivery system for a hallucinogenic drug (as outlined in patent Y), and my innovation lies in the combination, previously not thought possible, by the invention of this specific mechanism.

Meanwhile, the patent troll has “invented” a system to do with decapitation, where various vague and poorly defined things might happen before, and/or afterwards.

I believe, strongly, that IBM is an ethical company. I was proud to work there, and sad to leave. I think where I’m going next is an ethical company too. Both use patents defensively. Both invent things, and patent genuine work, not airy-fairy floaty ideas.

So on balance, I’m in favour of the creation of prior art. Because the more time I spend staring at my screen, trying to decipher the interwoven language, the exhausting and poorly defined details… the more I think that we don’t beat patent trolls by not participating. I think we can raise the bar so that they can’t compete because they don’t implement. For myself, I just choose companies that I believe act honourably in the process.

Anyway, maybe I’m too optimistic. Feel free to tell me I’m wrong in the comments.

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