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Problems with Intellectual Property


I’ve been making my way through Democratizing Innovation by Erik Von Hippel. It’s a pretty good read about the state of user innovation and ‘free revealing’ (sort of like open-source). The book reads like SparkFun turned into a statistical study! It’s very good, and very close to what we are doing here on a daily basis.

 Democratizing
Innovation

While taking the phone to a local bar, I often get the same question :  “Have you got a patent on that thing?” Hah. No. But this idea of “I’ve got an idea, don’t steal it!” approach to patenting is a bad idea in my opinion. In my mind, a patent is 3-5 years of lawyer pain, and 30-$50k in financial pain. And that’s just for the piece of fancy paper. The warchest to actually enforce the patent ranges from $500k to millions.

Chapter 8 - Page 112 “Earlier, when we explored why users might freely reveal their innovations, we concluded that it was often their best practical choice in view of how intellectual property law actually functions (or, often, does not function) to protect innovations today. For example, recall from chapter 6 that most innovators do not judge patents to be very effective, and that the availability of patent grant protection does not appear to increase innovation investments in most fields. Recall also that patent protection is costly to obtain, and thus of little value to developers of minor innovations?with most innovations being minor. ”

Bingo! One of the core reasons SparkFun does not patent, is because we believe it won’t get us anything. Well, that and we don’t think we have anything worth while to patent - but there’s plenty of silly people patenting silly things (it’s hyper-light-speed, sounds like ridiculous speed).

Chapter 8 - “We also saw that in practice it was often difficult for innovators to protect their innovations via trade secrecy: it is hard to keep a secret when many others know similar things, and when some of these information holders will lose little or nothing from freely revealing what they know.”

This is precisely true in our space. SparkFun can’t hoard information (trade secrets) because what we do isn’t that secret. There’s lots of other friends and foes in our world doing all the same electronic hackery.

More from Chapter 8 - “The debate rages. Gallini and Scotchmer (2002) assert that ‘intellectual property is the foundation of the modern information economy’ and that ‘it fuels the software, lifesciences and computer industries, and pervades most other products we consume.’”

Mkay. This sounds like the world as we know it might come tumbling apart if we uproot the foundation of intellectual property. But we (SparkFun) are not doing this. We’re simply saying “IBM, you go right ahead and patent your stuff” - we’re just going to do our own thing. And, from the bottom up, we’ll see what changes. I imagine someday someone will threaten us with a lawsuit. It’s certainly not keeping me up at night. But if that day comes, I’ll be sure to fill you in on how it goes.

I have a few friends with patents, and it wasn’t a pretty process. Does anyone actually know of a patent that is making themselves (or someone very close) any money?


Comments 56 comments

  • I find it ironic and sad that a company who makes its revenue by reselling other peoples patents on the internet would have such disdain for those who make these things possible.
    Patents on products like MEMS gyroscopes/accelerometers, GPS receivers, and OLED displays, which Sparkfun resells for a profit, are why your company even exist in the first place. Seems like the folks who patented all that cool stuff have served you well enough.
    You guys need to lay off the Boulder Kool-Aid. Just because you can stitch stuff together on a circuit board, stuff that was designed explicitly for that purpose, doesn?t place you in the same league of super star inventors that created those bits and pieces.
    You should not be promoting such a crap book or philosophy. You should be promoting the technologist that have created all the patented bits and pieces that you resell for a living. Your hobby/profession exist because of their technical achievements, not the other way around.

    • Man, if you really want to get worked up, you should give Benjamin Tucker a go, or maybe find a copy of The Dispossessed
      …but that’s neither here nor there, really. I haven’t read Von Hippel’s book, but pragmatic arguments for the benefits of “free revealing” hardly need anybody’s preferred variety of ideological Kool-Aid. The question Nate’s addressing here isn’t “should patents exist”, exactly. It’s how an organization like SFE, doing what SFE does, should proceed in the world as given.
      Meanwhile, in the big picture, there’s certainly an economic argument to be made for some level of state-sanctioned incentives for innovators, but we also have a couple millennia of the history of technology & science to work from. Would you suggest that, for example, peer-reviewed academic science hasn’t produced any important results?

    • Mmm. Kool-aid.
      mad_science - you failed to see, or answer, the question. Do you know anyone who has had success with patents? From all the postings, it seems rare that a small innovator such as yourself or myself can ever hope to feel protected by the patent process. That’s completely fine with me. It just changes the way small business does business.
      I completely admit to the fact that we are standing on the shoulders of giants. Who doesn’t these days?

    • mad_science: I find it ironic and sad that a company who makes its revenue by reselling other peoples patents on the internet would have such disdain for those who make these things possible.
      Patents on products like MEMS gyroscopes/accelerometers, GPS receivers, and OLED displays, which Sparkfun resells for a profit, are why your company even exist in the first place.

      I thought the implied audience was, well, the typical spark fun customer, not the big research organization that it takes to make MEMS gyroscopes, GPS technology, OLED displays, etc. This type of stuff doesn’t usually come from the average one-man shop working out of his/her basement. Even all the way up to the size of what sparkfun has become, it would be hard to argue that patenting, well, pretty much anything that SparkFun has put out so far, is a good idea.

  • madscience and Madhatter: Nate is not saying that ALL patents are bad. Quote “We’re simply saying ‘IBM, you go right ahead and patent your stuff’ - we’re just going to do our own thing” Please read carefully.
    Also, I do not think it’s fair to place a blanket rule on all patents being good or bad. You (two) may say that all the essential electronic bits could only be created because there was the assurance of patents. What about the abusal of this system, e.g. Xerox? Or could the Internet in its current form be so widely prevalent if it was patented? I doubt so.
    There are two sides to any coin.
    PS: No, I have not read the book though.

  • Being a biz owner there are some very inexpensive things you can do to protect your work and yourself. I’m sure there are some lawyers out there that may dispute this info, but that simply tells you which lawyer NOT to higher ;)
    1. Document your idea(s) as detailed as you can, video tape/DVD is a good way. Include measurements, drawings, source code, everything you can think of. Package it all up in a water proof container and Mail it to yourself by registered mail requiring a signature upon receipt. DO NOT OPEN IT! If you are taken to court by someone that copied your Idea, this package is indisputable proof who had the Idea first. As your Idea grows, be sure to update your archive and mail it to yourself again.
    2. Simply apply for a patent but don’t pursue it. This gives you the right to have “Patent Pending” placed on your product for the next couple years at least. This is usually a good deterrent to those thinking of coping your Idea.
    3. Register for a Trade mark or Copy write on the Logo/name of the product. It is fairly inexpensive to obtain. You can’t TM “3D Printer” but you could TM “DISCO-Max Copy2000”. You wouldn’t want a copy-cat to name their version the same as yours, and if they file for a TM, you have to change your name. Unfortunately, Logos and trade mark names don’t go by who thought of it first and Unfortunately the high-roller usually wins this battle in court. Case in point, a small candy company made and sold candy coated chocolate candies called “The Green Ones”. M&Ms registered the name and sued the candy company, putting them out of business (only after they realized the popularity of the green ones).
    4. Draw up a good NDA. Anyone that helps you on a product, have them sign it. If it is “that good” of an Idea, the programmer you higher could be writing the code for you, and selling it to company B.
    There really isn’t a good way to protect yourself from reverse engineering (MAC). Because of that, patents on electronics are almost a wast of money (MAC). Simply change how the core system obtains the same results and presto - a new type of computer (MAC).

    Well I rambled enough.

  • My Patent Disclosure Idea:
    “A Method For The Summation Of Rational Numbers"
    blah blah blah
    +

  • “Publish fully and publish frequently” Some smart dude.
    “Mail yourself a letter with a thumb drive (or CD) full of data and leave it unopened in a fire safe; a poor man?s patent of sorts.” My Girl
    “Sparkfun has reignited my burning desire for knowledge; youthfulness, previously lost in an adult world of rules and standardization.” Me

  • Don Lancaster covered much of this in the early 90’s very well and has only become more relevant since then see
    http://www.tinaja.com/glib/newpats.pdf

  • These are some of principles I’ve been learning for the past year. Breaking the old Gollum mindset was tough at first but places like Sparkfun, NYC Resistors, and Instructables have helped me gain a different perspective.
    I think ThunderHammer and Urix’s make excellent points. My experiences these past couple of months have taught me there’s a massive difference between coming up with an idea, and actually bringing it into the physical world. Combing that type of effort with your unique talents, outlook, and skills can often place you a couple of steps ahead of the “competition.”

  • Does anyone actually know of a patent that is making themselves (or someone very close) any >>money?
    Yep, a good friend of mine secured some IP maybe 15 years ago for a rather simple but very useful electronic device, and not only does he continue to receive licensing royalties, but he used the initial proceeds to pursue more ideas, one of which just recently turned into a $200 million deal. Seriously. So, yes patents can make you money, but it’s rare…the “statistic” i hear time and again is that 99.9% of patents make money for no one except the filing attorney(s).

    • Nathan Myrvold, ex CTO of Microsoft. His company, Intellectual Ventures is buying up patents left an right. They are also signing cross licensing deals that allow them to go after other companies. IV is a developer’s worst nightmare.

      • actually the just release an idea of a laser mosquito killer machine. i tweeted that idea like 3 month ago. so technically they have stolen it from me. now my tweets are private.
        i’m serious.

  • Is it true that if you don’t have a patent on your awesome idea, but you’re producing and selling it, someone else can come along, patent your idea and then sue you because you infringe their patent? That’s the only thing I would worry about if I chose to not patent my inventions.

    • Lets say you ship a product that contains a novel invention. Sometime later, somebody else files a patents for that same invention. Patent lawyers do a search for “prior art” before filing the patent application. If they find your product, they may decide not to proceed, or they may try to reword their patent to cover some use of the invention that is not related to your product.
      Even if that patent gets issued, you are free to continue shipping your product until the patent holder files a patent infringement suit against you. If that happens, you’ll claim your invention predates their patent, and so their patent is invalid. If you have proof to back up your claim, then the patent holder will instantly drop the suit.
      If they press you and it goes to court, the judge will throw their patent out as invalid because you have established prior art. Since that nukes the patent (and all the time and money that went into acquiring it), patent holders tend to avoid filing against somebody that can claim prior art.
      Disclaimer: This is a very simplified description, and I am very much NOT a lawyer.

      • The problem with your scenario is that the cost to litigate is significant and the judge could be persuaded to issue a temporary restraining order against you while he sorts it all out. This has happened to a company I worked for. We had to pull a product from the market.
        It is best to publicize the innovation that you are deciding not to patent so that it becomes prior art. Most companies are secretive about that sort of thing and thus are set up to be nailed by submarine patents.

      • The other problem with prior art claim is that if you don’t include it in your claims the patent office probably wouldn’t know anyway. Then you have a first to file vs first to invent. which sadly, at least in the states, FTF is trying to be pushed through as the new standard.

    • It is my understanding that if a product or an idea is published in print and is in the public domain, that someone cannot get a patent issued on that idea. They can try to get a patent on some major “non-obvious” improvement on that device or idea but they cannot get a patent on what you already have in the market place.
      I am not a patent expert but this is my understanding.
      RSM

    • No, because your publication is prior art, so no one else can patent it.
      check out wikipatents.com/

  • RE MAD
    All worked up eh? Perhaps you need to feel that the big money you spent on your patents was not in vain. Truth be told that the patent system has been flawed for years. I mean a long long time, even Tesla would agree with me. This system is a wall for ideas and the cost forces the poor to help the rich profit from their ideas. These Giants that you speak of (no disrespect) also stood on the shoulders of other Giants. Technology these days doesn’t come from scratch but is New combinations of existing inventions and this is Exactly sparkfun’s business. They enable creative minds to realize how to combine these ideas. I have nothing against patents. I just needed to say something to bring these mad
    back to earth. All mankind’s knowledge and the new ideas created from it are a combination a former and new ideas. Thank You Sparkfun for your effort to free the knowledge for all to partake.

  • When I was young and naive,I patented a couple of electronic designs -the patent process was allowed to expire after one year when I realized this was going to cost me a lot of money.
    Then I relized since I was using PIC chips in my design,and the flash program memory was lockable (code protection fuse on),no one could possibly copy my design and since the whole point of a patent process was to describe in the public domain all the details of the design,there was absolutely no need for a Patent.
    I later found out that’s it’s possibly to drill into the PIC and using a fine fibre optic to photograph the contents of the program memory! still don’t know if this is folklore.
    As far as I’m concerened Patents belong in the realms of blue chip multi million dollar companys such as drug companies,military defence etc who spent millions of dollars on a single innovation.The man in the street is today completely unlikely to discover or invent anything.The days of Faraday are long since passed together with ‘cottage’ industries.
    If every piece of software had been patented,I would be hard put to developing my oown software since I build on examples already writen and debugged.It sure has made my job a lot easier.
    Regards
    Richard

  • With all this discussion of people having the right to earn a wage for their IP and product of it. I wondered if SparkFun is paying for the Sync Rights to use the music in their videos posted on the site. That is someones IP and product. How is a musician expected to make a living if people do don’t pay what they owe?

    • We actually lucked out on that one - the music we used in the autonomous vehicle contest video is from the band Storytyme and the lead singer/guitarist is one of our employees. Thanks for your comment!

  • In the comments I see a common thread of the little guy incurring cost while the patent attny reaps the rewards.
    For those near Denver a fast and cheap way to research a possible patent is at the Denver Public Library. Summer of 2008 they obtained PubWest, the online research tool used by patent attnys. You have to go to the Central Library, but its free!
    http://denverlibrary.org/research/government/pubwest.html
    Whether you want to patent or not, PubWest is a fabulous research tool allowing you to cross search filed patents, view prior art and review real time submissions in relation to your own inventions.

  • Just my 2 cents:
    1. Cost: You can reduce the amount you pay the attorney by giving him/her a very detailed description of the invention up front. Giving the attorney a one page description is a sure fire way to get a large bill later on.
    2. Do a Google search (not just Google patents) for your invention before going to the attorney. Remember to use synonyms. If you find something remotely like your invention, repeat the search for the parts of the invention that distinguish it from what you found. Even if it is unrelated to your invention, determine if you as an engineer would think of combining these parts.
    3. Don’t be discouraged when the Patent Office rejects your application the first time. It is going to happen.
    4. Use an attorney. Patent claim drafting is an art. You are allowed to file yourself, but patent claims have to be written in a certain format.
    5. Even a minor invention can be valuable. See the story about Robert Kearns and intermittent wipers.

  • I agree with you on all points. I once considered intellectual property law as a career path, but now I see (in my experience) much of the importance of it is evaporating. History has proven that given the same resources and needs human beings will often arrive at the same solution to a problem, either through assimilation of a borrowed technology, or through completely independent creation of an identical solution to those arrived at in other cultures perhaps thousands of miles away.
    One could only assume that as technology becomes more accessible, and as lines of communication become more free and open, we will see more “parallelism” in new technologies. When I participated in the DARPA Grand Challenge, we all started with the same goal. There were varying degrees of interaction and sharing between teams, from zero to frequent. We all had access to the Internet, and therefore, to the same set of “tools”, in this case all available means of sensing obstacles, navigating, and controlling vehicles…(to be continued)

  • (continuing…)
    The result was that each team’s creation was remarkably similar in approach. The vehicles may have appeared vastly different on the exterior (as mine did), with each team trying different approaches to the physical configuration of the vehicle. The inner parts, though, the “guts” that did all the sensing and number crunching ended up being for the most part the same recipe of GPS, Radar, Lidar, Inertial Measurement, Video, and in some cases Sonar.
    I took a completely “from scratch” independent approach. I purposely avoided any forums or blogs related to the competition in order to avoid being distracted from my original approach. After all was said and done and I had a chance to compare my entry to the others, they were all essentially the same. What ended up seperating one team from another were the finer minutia of the software and filtering routines that made sense of the data. As Sebastian Thrun pointed out, it was really all about the software…(more to come…)

  • …(continued from previous post)
    The point is that as the “open source” approach becomes more common, the motivation to spend the vast resources necessary to protect our intellectual property is diminishing. If one designer makes a product that works and offers it for sale, someone could “steal” the product, but without investing more resources to make the product somehow better than the original, where is the motivation for anyone to prefer the newer product?
    And even if they choose to do so, technology advances so quickly that by that point the original creator would likely have released “Revision B” as it were, then we are back to playing catch-up. Sparkfun offers many neat and useful gadgets- many of which I use. If someone else were to start bulding the same products, the only motivation I would have to buy their’s would be if it were somehow cheaper or better. They would be challeged to make said product both cheaper and better while at the same time investing the resources necessary to protect the intellectual property.
    That’s my take on it- can’t wait to read the book.
    Rob

  • This thing doesn’t output ECEF coordinates. As ECEF coordinates gain popularity, a lot of people are going to spend as much replacing this with a better one as they would have spent getting a uBlox in the first place.

  • Man, I am SO glad we don’t have to deal with that crap. Rather, we choose no to. And I’m not saying that patents are necessarily useless. Clearly, there are some situations where they are arguably beneficial. But not here, not yet. Maybe it’s selfish of me to say that, and probably short-sighted. But I get to come into work everyday, and you know what’s on me schedule?
    1) Build cool stuff
    2) Give to as many people as possible so they can play with it, too.
    Seriously, what could be better? I mean, I think we’ve had some good ideas that may have been worth a patent, but the whole idea of protecting our stuff just seems so contrary to what we do in the first place. And I think I can speak for everyone here when I say that we really just want to focus on the fun part.
    I tip my hat to the giants. You made my life what it is today.

  • Prior art has become less relevant as the patent office is overwhelmed with so many superfluous applications. For us, the concern is not protecting our designs as much as making sure not to violate someone else’s IP.
    IP-holding firms profit from licensing their IP and usually pursue aggressive legal action against businesses who don’t ante up. How many of you know that PWM color mixing using LEDs has been patented by ColorKinetics? They have made millions and have been controversial in the lighting world for years.
    On the other end of the spectrum, patent trolls wait quietly, hoping to strike it rich by going after the unfortunate company that “accidentally” infringes on their patent.
    Either way, innovation is stifled.

  • I had an idea of mine ripped off, and I am actually HAPPY about it. It was a special thermostat for classic cars. The original design was no longer available and the “standard” type would function, but only partially. I had an on-line discussion, in public, containing very specific measurements and construction specs including the specific standard unit which would serve as the starting point for mods.
    I did not follow through with the production of the device beyond a design on paper and a non-functional mock-up. A year or 2 later I heard of a place that was making a replacement for the original thermostat, and I decided to buy one. When I got it, I could not believe my eyes. It was my EXACT design!
    I could never have made it nor marketed it profitably. But by being ripped off, I got exactly what I wanted for about $50! I’d have preferred a than-you and a free prototype, but this was OK. Since I had not put all that much work into it, it was no loss to me.
    -Tony

  • Intel’s www.intel.com runs linux - at least on the frontend. They have dozens of public boxes running linux/apache. They have dozens of others are running Win2003. That’s just the stuff we can see from the outside.
    Having worked for a company in the past that inventories open source for large enterprises, I can tell you most enterprises are standing on the shoulders of open source also. Most companies who go through an oss inventory process are floored by its prevalence. Some CTOs even swore up and down they didn’t run any oss - we showed them otherwise.
    So, unfortunately, it’s nowhere near as clear cut that OSS is standing on patentable work or vica-versa. The reality is today it’s a mixed bag. Ironically, their way to patentable IP, most enterprises use OSS.
    That said, it’s almost axiomatic is that the larger the initial capital investment, the less the endeavor lends itself to OSS approaches initially.

  • I totally agree. I’ve had people tell me “you should have patented that!” for some of what I have made freely available and quite frankly, I never even considered it for these reasons:
    * I can’t afford the patent process, only big companies can afford to do this, “commoners” like us can’t.
    * I don’t see the use in the patent, why keep someone else from using a good idea? I’d rather create than collect money (license fees) from those that do create.
    * I make my stuff freely and OBVIOUSLY available to intentionally provide evidence of “prior art” so that others can’t patent the idea. If you keep an idea secret, others with more money will patent it out from under you and prevent its usage.
    Based upon patent fights that I’ve been privy to, patents exist to bully others into paying someone money that they don’t really have any right to. Copyright is one thing, a patent is simply and only a restraint of trade. IBM, Microsoft, etc. have the pockets to take away any patent that anyone without deep pockets has. Maybe this served a purpose at one time, but the patent process has been perverted to the point where nothing short of a total re-engineering of the whole concept will fix it. I see no value whatsoever in a patent. Other than bragging rights, that is.
    IMO,
    Dennis Clark

  • If Sparkfun really got squeezed & couldn’t give weekends off, would the discovery of an employee spending 16 hours a week writing free software be tolerated?
    Times were different in 1999. The model was basically do whatever you want on weekends. Someone else would always give you a salaried job doing something else to pay for it.
    Today, most companies outside government consider all the time you’re not in your chair a liability. It’s really really really hard to make money in the private sector. Most don’t give weekends off & if they found out you had any spare time to write free software you’d be unemployed.
    As far as patents, if the invention is simple to replicate & not very high in demand, no-one will copy it because they either know it’ll just get stolen again or it’s not worth enough.
    If the invention is substantial enough that few can replicate it & it’s very profitable, they’ll copy it. If you’re burning time on it that you could be spending supporting your boss & you don’t have a secure paycheck outside your inventing work, you’re going to find out why patents were invented the hard way.
    We all wish 1999 could come back, but it’s not.

    • At the moment, we’re using Ubuntu, Debian, Apache, PHP, Perl, MySQL, Subversion, Trac, Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice, Samba, dnsmasq, Xen, Dancer-IRCd, and CUPS. Our catalog, build tracking, inventory management, and (as of early next week) the shipping system are all built on GPLed software, using free development tools (Vim, Emacs, KDevelop, KCacheGrind, Firebug, Xdebug, ctags, etc.). BatchPCB runs on a custom-built GPLed CMS which you can check out from SourceForge. You can find footprints for most of SFE’s parts, and one of my current projects is to build a more accessible public design repository.
      Free software is pretty much my job.

      • I get your point, but your comments aren’t entirely true. Using FOSS is different than writing FOSS. A [good] FOSS user should submit bug reports should any be encountered, but this doesn’t make you a writer.
        Developing with FOSS also does not necessarily make one an FOSS writer (depending upon the restriction of the software agreement, but as far as I know, most, if not all have no such EULA statement).
        However, it does seem you are indeed an FOSS developer (QuasiCMS, nice piece of work there it looks like), w00t!
        Not bashing, just posting my thoughts… Actually didn’t read the comment thread, just yours. Don’t you feel special?!

  • My above comments have been maligned. I like Sparkfun and their innovative culture.
    But as a patent holder in the semiconductor field myself. I’m not ignorant of the process. I find it ironic and sad that the hobbyist feel somehow superior in culture to the “big institutions” that have in fact enabled their hobby/culture in the first place. If it were not for all their cool inventions, the Sparkfun enthusiast would not have any bits and pieces to build their clever little hobby gadgets out of.
    Hobby electronics exist because of the success of these “big institutions” we should be thanking them. They contribute far more to our hobby then we do to their businesses.
    Also, since when is the point of a patent (or a hobby) to make money? Anybody getting rich building their own toys? My hobby is costing me money, which I think it should. But I’d bet there are a lot more rich patent holders then there are Sparkfun hobbyist… I’m not one of them, but I know of several.

  • Google has an awesome patent service. It allows you to view patents in full, in a particularly pretty format, and doesn’t require registration to get at the goods.
    http://www.google.com/patents?vid=USPAT6025810

  • Yes in fact I have profited from a patent. I currently hold 2 and have 6 more filed waiting first office actions. With 2 more in process.
    I had a good idea. But needed allot of money to get somewhere with it. No one would invest in anything that didn’t have some sort of protection. Otherwise company XYZ could just take it and your screwed. Patents aren’t a poor mans game. Yes the system isn’t perfect but for its original purpose it works just fine.
    As to Sparkfun. Not trying to be funny but there isn’t anything here that hasn’t been done 10 times before. You just do it better than the next guy ;-) Yes you can get some garbage patents. But one key aspect to all patents is they need to hold up in court. This is how the checks and balance system works. Patents + Law.
    Whether it sounds like it or not, I do like Sparkfun. Heck its even inspired me to make changes to my business.

  • Very interesting. There’s definitely a give-and-take situation with patent and open-sourcing in the technology community.
    The open-source communities really do help with the proliferation of technology and engage people to tinker and develop, but I don’t think anyone can deny that businesses don’t necessarily profit from pure innovation, they profit from patentable innovation.
    Odd thing though, on a software project from last year, we actually had more difficulty with open-source items than others. Typically paid-license software has an easy set of channels to go through that would love nothing more than to sell you a license to use their work in your project, whereas if you find something based on an open-source project, you have to hunt for contact info and hope they’re keen on letting you use it.

  • jassper hit the nail on the head here…..
    and microsoft and google must be doing something right!!!
    they patent EVERYTHING!!

  • ……….patenting silly things (it’s hyper-light-speed, sounds like ridiculous speed).
    What about “Ludicrous Speed”

  • At the Entconnect Conference in Denver last month, we had an IP attorney tell us that it costs about $1M to defend a $1M patent, making it essentially worthless. A $10M patent costs about $2.5M to defend.
    If you want to estimate the value of a patent, figure out the number of products sold that would use that patent in countries where patents are honored, multiply just the value that the patented feature would add to that product by about 3%, and you’ll have a rough figure. Using that yardstick, there are very few patents issued that are worth even $1M.
    As far as big corporations go, patents are just a cost of doing business. If you don’t have a war chest of patents, someone (usually a competitor) will use theirs to squeeze some money out of you. Technology companies try to acquire enough patents so they can eventually enter into cross-licensing agreements with competitors to make their patent pain go away.

  • A world that did not allow patent trolls like Myrvold to exist would be a better place. Patents don’t seem important or necessary until someone goes after you for patent infringement.
    That said, it seems reasonable that someone who invents a novel product and actually takes it into production might be afforded some kind of protection. There should be a rational middle ground, but it’s not found in the current system.

  • Well said Sparkfun!
    My day job is at a big company that I’ve been told makes more money from it’s IP and patent portfolio than any other company in the world. They don’t file the most patents, but their patents are generally of high quality. They invest $100’s of millions in R&D in certain core areas and without the patents there is no way companies would pay the billions in licensing fees they do today. These are patents that required huge capitial expenditures to develop and I believe they should be protected.
    That said, I completely agree that the patent system is abused these days and love what sparkfun does here. I myself follow a similar model on my hobby projects. One example is an electric spinning wheel I developed and sell. Everyone who buys one sees a link to a webpage telling them where to buy the parts and how to build it. Some people buy the pre-built products out of convenience and others because they don’t have the knowledge/tools to make it. In this ever increasingly complex world, I see this open source mentality only becoming more popular.

  • (oops, hit send too soon)
    I have family and friends that have made big money because of patents. Some based on ideas they developed on their own and patented on their own, and other patents developed at their “day job” and they got a nice chunk of change in royalties. Now that my Dad is retired, he can do what he wants, and partnered with two other guys that developed some ideas for targeted advertising. They got a patent on some of the ideas (that they wrote up themselves at minimum expense) and came really close to licensing to another company. Just before closing, the other company backed out and told them that they were going to use the technology anyway. They “said” they didn’t believe their patents were valid, and stated that they knew my Dad’s company didn’t have the resources to pursue it. This is an example of how a patent could be a waste of time if you don’t have the money (and time, and energy) to take on the big guy.

  • Just like the “phone at the bar” scenario. I too get asked quite often if I have a patent on my gizmos. When I say “No”, I almost always get the same funny look with the same follow up question of “why not?”. I’m gald to see that there are other people out there that think the same way I do. Rock On Sparkfun!

  • Hence lets not forget all the useless patented technology behind that CPU in your computer that most of your open source software runs on.
    Intel would have no reason to invest billions on highly talented engineers if everything they did was public domain…
    Take the wonderful Audrino and its openness. Not possible if it weren’t for Atmel investments in technology inwhich they patented.

  • My first patent,I wrote myself and only got it because I drove the ‘examiner’ crazy. Was it a good patent. Nope. I was ripped off several times and couldn’t afford a law suit. I think Don Lancaster,the electronic guru of the 70’s+ said it all: http://www.tinaja.com/glib/casagpat.pdf
    When I worked for some big companies and designed electronic toys for them,they would pay for a high priced,NYC attorney to get a patent in my name. I’d sell the patent to them for $1,I got a royalty in exchange. I knew the patent was worthless and the toys were ripped off often. I just humored them ,went through the ‘motions’ and took the royalty and ran.
    Why worry;if you’re a real idea person,you never run out of them.
    Forrest Mims III(of Radio Shack,‘how to’ book fame) won a case (I think it was Bell Tel) and I’m not even sure he had a patent;just presented them with an idea they rejected and they later used and won big.

  • Ideas are like assholes. Everybody’s got one, and a some people have several.
    Turning ideas into reality, now that’s where the magic is. You can have the idea of a pyramid, but actually rounding up several thousand slaves and convincing them you’re a god and they should build it for you, that' impressive. But with our system someone can come along and say, “I had the idea of a pocket watch fly swatter first, and even though I did nothing with it after I patented it, all your profits are belong to me”. It’s an unfortunate state of affairs.

  • Some relevant thoughts from one J. Tweedy:
    <blockquote>And if the whole world’s singing your songs
    And all of your paintings have been hung
    Just remember what was yours is everyone?s from now on
    And that’s not wrong or right
    But you can struggle with it all you like
    You’ll only get uptight
    </blockquote>

  • While there are alternatives to patents and you CAN protect your ideas, do you really want to go into the patent protection biz? I’ve seen it happen to well intended inventors. They made money, and every penny went back into patent protection. Very ironic.
    Open technology, both software and hardware, promotes innovation. I once heard that the only secret in engineering was that there aren’t any secrets. I personally believe this and promote it.
    I often design for customers under an NDA. I always respect that and let the customer deal with how they manage the IP they paid me to create. As for my own stuff… the best I can hope for is that it will take “The Competition” a while to catch up. By then I’m on to something else.
    I’ve always treated this “job” as being paid to play. Sharing ideas, circuits, code, etc. is ‘playing well with others’. Its usually returned in kind.

  • kgutwin:
    There’s something called prior-art.
    So yes, he can sue you, but it’s very easy to defend in court and then patent gets rejected completely.
    That’s why many obvious patents are useless as you can easily find prior art. Althrought it might cost you some $$$ to defend yourself.


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