Obituaries for man who invented bar code scanner

by Walter Olson on December 15, 2012

Daniel Fisher notes that they had little to say about the inveterate patent asserter who claimed in court to have invented the revolutionary device [Forbes]:

But [Ropes & Gray attorney Jesse] Jenner has one suggestion: Require inventors to prove their technology works before giving them a patent. Most countries require inventors to provide a working model, he said, while the U.S. merely requires a description.

“One way to get rid of a lot of half-baked ideas would be to require that somebody make it first,” he said. If Lemelson had been required to do that, his record as an inventor might have been a lot shorter.

{ 7 comments }

1 John David Galt 12.15.12 at 7:06 pm

Too bad his grave won’t be marked with one.

2 No Name Guy 12.16.12 at 2:29 am

And if your cell phone….nay, any portable electronic device ends up with an active protection system, you’ll be paying these guys a boat load for it…..and never mind that they haven’t (at least per the article) actually DONE this yet.

http://seattletimes.com/html/businesstechnology/2019906531_sundaybuzz16xml.html

3 Ed 12.16.12 at 11:25 am

We used to require a model, it was ended due to lack of storage space. Having to prove that you idea works would help get rid of patent trolls who buy up old patents. You can patent an idea and wait until someone else develops an actual product then sue them for violating your patent.

4 Richard Nieporent 12.16.12 at 3:10 pm

@No Name Guy

The article you link is quite revealing of the problems with patent law.

To differentiate between dropping the phone on a shag rug and a driveway, the patent says the system might include a “surface-type detector … that may use a number of technologies, such as infrared, radar, X-ray or image recognition.”

This is a perfect example of why the patent system is so screwed up. Instead of having to develop an actual device, the patent simply identifies a long list of possible mechanisms that potentially can be used without having to actual show that any of them would work. All this does is provide a legal basis for suing someone in the future who actually does develop a working device. If you make the list long and vague enough you will be able to sue anyone for patent infringement. Software patents are even worse because there is no intent to produce an actual piece of code that does something. Rather it simply describes a set of capabilities that potentially can be implemented in software. I was always under the impression that you could not patent an idea; it was necessary to actual produce something that works. That evidently is no longer the case.

5 DensityDuck 12.17.12 at 2:32 pm

That the patent system is implemented badly by people who don’t understand the things they’re approving is not an argument that “the patent system is so screwed up”.

People drive badly, but nobody is saying “dammit these people don’t know how to merge, BAN PRIVATE OWNERSHIP OF AUTOMOBILES”.

Perhaps the patent office needs to be more willing to say “I don’t understand what this is supposed to be, patent denied”.

*********

“One way to get rid of a lot of half-baked ideas would be to require that somebody make it first…”

Ah-heh. So every inventor ought to have a machine shop and a plastics factory and a computer-chip fabrication plant and a copper mine and an oil distillery and anything else that might conceivably be required to produce a working model of anything they might invent. Because if they send non-patented stuff to a shop, that shop now has a copy of the design. Which isn’t patented. Meaning they can make as many of them as they like.

“Oh, but you can make the shop sign an NDA!” Oh, so now inventors have to be business lawyers, too? Yeah, that works a lot better.

6 Richard Nieporent 12.17.12 at 9:00 pm

@density duck

Yes the patent office has a problem with patenting unworkable devices. That is clearly manifest by the number of perpetual motion machines that have granted patents.

http://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/museum/patents.htm

However, that was not the point I was making. Ignoring for a moment a patent for an actual machine, what is the rational for allowing a software patent where not only does the inventor not have to provide the actual code, but where he or she can allege a whole range of ways of implementing it without having to do anything to show that it is feasible. All this does is provide a basis for suing someone who actually creates a working version of the software. It is very easy to come up with potential ways of implementing the code if you don’t actually have to do it.

With respect to building hardware, the article that I quoted from is a perfect example of what is wrong with the way patents are granted.

the patent says the system might include a “surface-type detector … that may use a number of technologies, such as infrared, radar, X-ray or image recognition.”

Explain to me just what has been invented. All this does is discuss a hypothetical way of implementing the device without having to show that it could work. An invention should have to be real, not something that has been imagined.

7 DensityDuck 12.30.12 at 12:39 am

“All this does is discuss a hypothetical way of implementing the device without having to show that it could work.”

A: Yes, Virginia, patents can be (and often are) rejected for being overbroad.

B: The reason for language like you quote is that the other option is to include a description of everything that’s ever been invented in every sentence of the patent, so that someone doesn’t say “ah-HAH! You didn’t include (very specific configuration) in your patent, therefore we can build (very specific configuration) without paying you any money at all!”

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