Sunday, January 5, 2014

You Didn't Invent That!

The title of this post is a clumsy paraphrase of President Obama's infamous declaration that "you didn't build that." The President's soundbite was itself a clumsy paraphrase of Elizabeth Warren's much more elegant statement about shared sacrifice--that we all must participate in a unified effort to build infrastructure, etc.

In other words, you may have built the business. You may have built the building that houses it. You may even own the water filtration, the waste-water treatment, and the electricity generation for your business. You do not, however, own the roads that bring and distribute your stuff, the police that guard your stuff, nor the education system that provides your workers. You didn't build any of that, or many other elements that make your business work. That's why you share the costs as well as the rewards of these shared assets.

I'm not here to talk about any of that, however. Well, not any more than I just did. This post is about inventions.

At some point in my career discernment (see also: here) between normal little kid stuff (astronaut, fireman, superhero), and some intermediate more serious stuff (small business owner, truck driver, Roman Catholic priest), I wanted to be an inventor. The major hurdles I encountered were the same that all inventors encounter:

1. Most of the easy stuff has already been invented (e.g. the wheel, the Flowbee, chewing gum, the Dewey Decimal System, flush toilets...). America the Book discusses this problem in its introduction:
Yes, [the founding fathers] were very accomplished. We discovered electricity, invented stoves, bifocals, the lazy susan, efficient printing presses, and the swivel chair. But in the 19th century it was nearly impossible not to invent something. "What if we put this refuse in a receptacle?" "Oh my God you just invented a sanitation system!" We lived in primitive times. Hell, I shit in a bucket and I was the president.
But I digress...-Thomas Jefferson
B. Most of the hard stuff is too hard (e.g. invisibility, anti-gravity, hyperspace travel, representative democracy...). I found that when I wasn't inventing stuff that already existed, I was busy inventing stuff that may never exist. Essentially, I was trying to come up with the stuff of science fiction, including lightsabers, time machines, and Kelly LeBrock.

Today's inventors have overcome these problems.

No they haven't. Many of today's inventors have invented a novel way around this problem--inventing the enormously obvious, and patenting it.

I'm old enough to remember when Apple Computers was on death's doorstep because other very strong computer companies like Atari, Amiga, and Tandy were threatening to wipe them off the map.
Apple computers were thought to be beautiful, but at times overly precious, overly priced, and overly isolationist. They were great if you were willing to buy Apple® printers, Apple® mice, and the Apple®cables and such to connect these things together. They were great if you needed your computer to arrive entirely in one nice, neat box. They were great if you were an insufferable hipster who wanted to escape the monolith of IBM. Thank goodness those days are long past.

And yet, somehow in spite of all of this, Apple survived. They not only survived, they managed to slip themselves--literally and figuratively--into the pockets of a large percentage of the developed world. They survived in part by creating elegant devices, intuitive to interact with and attractive in ways that it wouldn't be strictly necessary for our electronics to be attractive.

Apple also survived because they learned to patent stuff. They have attempted to patent stuff like curved corners, file folders, finger gestures (though, not finger gestures--yet). This means that if you move your fingers a certain way, you may need to pay Steve Jobs's estate a couple of bucks.

Why care? Care because only a certain percentage of us can work for and/or be major stock holders in Apple. Meanwhile, the rest of us may want to develop something that Apple (or another company that operates this way--though I'll continue to say "Apple" because it's simpler, and every story needs a villain) has previously thought to patent. A patent doesn't require Apple to make this cool thing, it just ensures that Apple is the only one that can without getting sued. In order to wrap our minds around this problem, it may be helpful to imagine the future of this sort of thing by imagining that patent trolls existed in the past.

Here are some things that I will "invent" and patent if I ever get my hands on a time machine:
  • Time machines - I hope you in the future are enjoying your Slacker's Guide Time Machines®. You're welcome. Please come again.
  • Piano keyboards - Sharp and flat keys raised above the plane of natural notes (regardless of color) pushed downward to make sound. Feel free to invent a system in which you must pull up on the keys. I don't mind.
  • Vehicle controls - Consisting of a steering wheel (turn any-shaped device--wheels, or other shapes--counter-clockwise for left and clockwise for right), accelerator on the right, clutch on the left, brakes in between. Only Slacker Guide® cars may use this configuration.
  • Clockwise - Clocks that are not Slacker Guide (r) must spin to the left. And no numbers on the face--those are mine.
  • Books - Devices that contain printing on the facing and back pages, which are bound on the left. A Table of Contents ® page may list page numbers of contents. Page numbers too--that's mine.
  • Brakes - Any use of friction to bring a vehicle to a stop is mine. You may use parachutes.
  • Parachutes - Temporary oversight. I now own any use of fabric or any other flat material to catch enough air to slow things down. Sorry, just use your feet like in the old days.
  • QWERTY keyboards - You must organize your keyboard by some other means. I suggest alphabetical.
  • Alphabetical order - Sorry, that's mine now. Please arrange your alphabets in some other order.
  • Writing implements - To include any writing device that is cylindrical in nature, with a point on one end to apply a material--be it ink, graphite, blood from the back of your own hand, or any other liquid, solid, or liquolid.
  • Liquolids - Mine.
  • Cups, plates, saucers, bowls, forks, knives, spoons, napkins - If it keeps food or drink off the floor, or brings this food to your mouth, thank the Slacker Guide® company. And pay us.
  • Sporks, knivoons, fnikes - All conjoined utensils. Don't even try it--we own it.
You can see where this is going. Actually, you saw where this was going quite some time ago, but I chose to drive it into the ground, and beyond. And beyond that. In fact, I now own driving it into the ground too, so add that to the list. I'm looking at you, SNL.

The next question may be "what does this mean for us?" If patent trolls succeed in a future version of the list I've created, what in the world will we have available to build on and improve? One of the reasons that we all participate in the construction of roads and other infrastructure is so that no one can keep you away from Costco® by building Sam's Club® roads that don't quite go there. If little note-pad sized machines that display and store information (as if like...uhm...notepads) are the property of one company, the next innovator needs to start with something in a different shape. Perhaps a sphere.

I don't know the answer, but I do know that I'm very attracted to companies and entities that have a set-it-free approach to their intellectual property. The Mountain Goats and the Dave Matthews Band are very hands-off with bootleg recording. In the case of the Mountain Goats, this especially helpful since some of their professionally produced CDs sound like this (which, adorably enough, YouTube offers to let you listen to in HD). Dave Matthews's songs are available not only as performances, but with TABs and videos for the freaks who can actually play his stuff. Similarly, Linux is an open-source operating system, which encourages innovation by giving away the source code. Not every company or artist has decided that throwing up walls around their stuff is the only way to make headway.

The way to fix this is to move toward patents that are much more narrow, don't last nearly as long, and are limited to the mechanism for making the stuff actually function. We need to avoid permitting patents on things that are essentially a philosophy, a style, or a basic interaction between humans and stuff. We need to build systems that exist in a world where the guy who gets there first with an idea isn't the only one with something worthwhile to contribute to that idea--maybe he's entitled to a little something if someone builds on his idea, but let's work out mechanisms for that that don't crush the pace of innovation. Apple should be able to make a good living for its inventors, developers, and workers just by making good stuff that people want to buy. Apple's primary function as a company should be making this stuff so good that it's the stuff that people want, rather than focusing on making sure that other companies can't do the same.

Or, I could think up something like the stuff on the list above and patent the living daylights out of it. That may be the more practical solution.

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