Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Romanticizing the role of the solo inventor?

On 2 June 2011, Mark Lemley of Stanford Law posted "The Myth of the Solo Inventor" on SSRN.

On 8 June 2011, the New York Times presented an editorial titled The Fair Rewards of Invention , criticizing the Stanford/Roche Supreme Court decision and including the words:

By stressing ''the general rule that rights in an invention belong to the inventor,'' the majority opinion of Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. romanticizes the role of the solo inventor. It fails to acknowledge the Bayh-Dole Act's importance in fostering collaborative enterprises and its substantial benefit to the American economy.

See also




A comment:

Thanks for the comments.

Of the light bulb, your post began:

Edison invented the light bulb, right? No, explains Mark Lemley (Stanford Law) in his newly posted article, The Myth of the Sole Inventor. Edison merely "found a bamboo fiber that worked better as a filament in the light bulb developed by Sawyer and Mann, who in turn built on lighting work done by others."

But Edison's invention related to incandescent heating of a filament. Sawyer and Mann's patent as-filed was not about filaments. As a historical matter, bamboo is not mentioned as a filament material in the fundamental Edison patent. Thus, from a historical perspective, the initial statements in your post are incorrect. Was Edison really building on Sawyer and Mann's invention as it was initially disclosed? In turn, however, note that there were no "Edison" light bulbs at the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1893.

Of -- I haven't carefully checked your sources (just as I don't carefully check the sources of articles I blog about --, the source you might check is Lemley's reference to the Stanford Observer (a now defunct periodical for Stanford alums, like Lemley and myself), which in turn cited a non-existent 1947 article in the New York Times as a basis for the hearing aid assertion. The non-existence of the 1947 article was pointed out in 2008, suggesting its use in 2011 might be sub-blogworthy.

Of the integrated circuit [IC], Gary Boone never claimed to be the inventor of the IC, but Mark Lemley did make Boone the inventor within the pages of the Stanford Law Review.

Mark A. Lemley, Patenting Nanotechnology, 58 Stan. L. Rev. 601, 611-612 (2005):

The integrated circuit was itself an improvement in the field of computing, a way of building transistors (an invention discussed above) [p. 612] directly into a computer chip by using charged silicon, a semiconductor. The invention opened up not just computing but also calculators, cell phones, and a host of other portable electronic devices. But because two different inventors working independently developed the integrated circuit at about the same time (1971), the patents were put into interference. Gary Boone was ultimately declared the winner, but not until 1999, twenty-eight years after the first patent application was filed.

***Another comment -->

To follow up to your text -- Lemley isn't making any claims about the scope of the patents these inventors received, so whether "bamboo" appears in Edison's patent is irrelevant. Rather, his claim is a historical one: that while society thinks of Edison as stepping into vacuum and independently creating this pioneering invention, he was really building on others' ideas much more than the canonical myth suggests. -- my responses WERE as to points of history, not as to claim scope of the patents:

#1. Edison's fundamental patent doesn't mention the word bamboo ANYWHERE, because at the time of filing, he had not discovered the useful bamboo. The fact that bamboo isn't mentioned in the patent is HIGHLY relevant to understanding the history of Edison's light bulb.

#2. The Wright's patent application (leading to a patent in 1906) was filed months before the flight of December 17, 1903 and had nothing to do with a powered airplane. In fact, the Wrights wasted time at the patent office trying to explicitly include such language later. This is a point of history, not of claim scope.

#3. As to the "transistor as hearing aid" urban legend, by the time Lemley had circulated the story from the Stanford Observer, Shockley and Bardeen (both of whom I have talked to in the past) were dead and unavailable for comment. I directly communicated with Bardeen's first grad student at the University of Illinois, who thoroughly repudiated Lemley's legend, with the remarks directly published in 8 JMRIPL 80 for all to review. As to history, it is important to note that the Stanford Observer piece relies on a non-existent 1947 article in the New York Times. Of your text -- he relied on peer-reviewed articles --, please note that the Stanford Observer was a newsletter for Stanford alums, and was not "peer reviewed," and more importantly as to the transistor, has no basis in fact.

**Of --most invention is simultaneous --, the Wright Brothers made an invention in a field populated by many competitors, including Langley, but viewed the problem in a way not visualized by any of the competitors. Curtiss derivatized the work and in later years went into the real estate business. How is the Wrights' work evidence for simultaneous invention? There is no dispute that Carlson's work evolved independently, and, as to the transistor, Lilienfeld's work preceded the Bell Labs work by more than 15 years, again hardly evidence for "simultaneous" invention.


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