Patent Laws, Property Protection or Societal Encumbrance?

Patent laws have always been a point of contention; the notion that one’s novel ideas can be treated as protected property of the individual themselves is nothing new, but the extent to which they apply to such inventions and duration of such protection is something met with increasing consternation. And yet, patent laws themselves have always led to litigation, and indeed many a great inventor has been consumed by them.

One such example is Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, inventor of the Langstroth hive, the modern beehive used by beekeepers the world over. Such a practical invention was relevant to any farmer, and became a keystone for modern industrial agriculture. However, despite receiving a patent in 1852, Rev. Langstroth would spend the rest of his life simply trying to defend his invention in court; with a dearth of financial and legal resources, such cases dogged him for the rest of his life. This constant struggle for defending patents can perhaps best be summed up in this passage by his contemporaries-

“For the seven years of [The Bee Journal’s] existence…it deprecated the war made on our venerable friend, the Rev. L. L. Langstroth, and his patent, and the consequent annoyance and continual appeal to the courts to defend that patent. His present dependent and helpless condition, is mainly attributable to the war that was made on him, and it is surpassingly strange that some who know all this, now talk of waging a similar war on another inventor.”

In this case, the protections offered by the patent system ultimately failed the client they were meant to protect and thus adversely impacted his livelihood more than they actually protected his invention. And in all fairness, enforcement proved difficult in this case, the novelty of the Langstroth hive was offset by the ease of which it could be constructed. Citing this case as an example of the inventor vs manufacturing interests, we can dismiss the notion that patents have only recently become a system for the rich. Rather the disparities of wealth and social class have always been a barrier of entry to inventors who lacked corporate backing.

One contemporary case has come to typify the abuses patents can create in the market competition between multinational conglomerates. In 2012 Apple and Motorola (then owned by Google) attempted to prove claims that they had both invented certain tap-swipe gestures for unlocking smartphones. In a rare act, renowned intellectual property lawyer Richard Posner actually threw out the case on the grounds that these patents described the act of drawing basic geometry (e.g. a point is a “zero length line”), and proclaimed that the resources spent by both companies on the case were in conflict with the public interest. Only 2 years later this dismissal was in-effect overturned by another Federal court, and the nitpicking between the two companies  resumed. As with all law this debate largely stems on the philosophic discrepancies between jurists. This again, is nothing new, and over the last century we’ve explored the meaning of patents. While much is left to debate, I feel it is fair to say these legal concepts serve two purposes-

•Protection of the inventor in question during their lifetime to recoup finances spent on their invention

•A time delay for the public, ultimately allowing the common market to benefit from this idea after it has existed for some period of time

Some things that are less clearly defined however, include-

•What ideas/objects shouldn’t be patented, what constitutes this exception?

•When should a patent expire, how long are its protections meant to apply?

This issue has only been further complicated by the digital commons, in that authorship still exists and the crime of piracy is not victim-less, but for every time that a digital work is duplicated, no significant resources are stolen by virtue of its creation. This has only complicated matters for patentholders as the manufacturing process that is 3D printing has become so versatile that almost any manner of machine For all intents and purposes, there is a relatively limitless amount of computing space for a copy of a work to manifest, the copy is truly identical to the original in that the code that goes into the file is identical down to every character.

With the emergence of new technologies, we’ve witnessed sweeping decisions by lawmakers and the Supreme Court alike. In this 6 part series I will be covering everything from the historic precedence of patent laws, copyright laws, and their extension, to recent developments in the last decade. This includes the recent creation of furniture patents in the EU, in response to the growing popularity of 3D printers, as well as the patent of genetics, and the Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. case where the SCOTUS ruled that naturally occurring genetic sequences could not be patented. Through this critical inquiry I hope to better understand where patent laws have largely worked, where they have failed, how they have changed in this country’s history, and what this may mean for policy in the future.