9/09/2009

Capitalism and Invention

I'm facinated by a lot of the uninformed argument about health care, relative to technology. Without Medicare and Medicade, the profitibility of the major medical device companies would be so slim that they wouldn't exist in any recognizable form, but those corporations are fighting "the public option" as hard as the more obviously self-interested insurance companies.

People claim that our capitalist system "produces" innovation and it does seem that many of the more socialist countries are less inclined to develop new drugs and devices. On the other hand, we're consistently generations behind in surgical procedures and preventive therapies and our physicians often go to Europe, Japan, India, and Singapore to learn the newest surgical tactics.

Being the traditional "ugly American," I have absolutely no personal experience anywhere but here and Canada. So I'm only getting what little I know from the media and second-hand reports and experiences. Still, it seems to me that trying to work both sides of the capitalist-socialist boarder has created an expensive, sluggish, marketing-based system that works pretty poorly for the majority of citizens. The link between capitalism and technical advances doesn't seem particularly tight.

A friend and I, about 6 years ago, came up with an invention for which he inisisted on applying for a patent. I was more convinced that we should build a product, first, and worry about the legal crap later. He went ahead, with his money, and dumped a load of cash into a New York patent law firm. The patent is still in the system, but another company is making exactly our product and selling it. They aren't making much money from it, as I suspected would be the case for our production. The whole process really made me thing about how I feel about invention, innovation, and business, though.

I've had about two dozen experiences with the patent process, in and because of my career. I invented a mobile electronic scale in the 1970's. I applied for a patent with that product, about six months after a company a friend owned went into production with the product. I did not follow up on the patent and the concept, as far as I know, is public domain now. It's also obsolete and went that way about 2 years after it went into use. I made some money. My friend got his company off of the ground with the product. I learned a lot about how corporations breech individuals' patent rights. I ended up in another industry and decided to keep my weight measurement ideas to myself. I wrote many of two companies' patent applications for a decade. I worked with patent lawyers and still communicate with one them, as a friend. The more I know, the less I want to participate in that system.

An engineer who worked for me in the 1980s had a common experience in lighting design in his own business. A Chinese company started copying his product designs and he ended up getting a consultant's fee for helping them steal his design. The feel-good stories and movies about inventors ending up rich after fighting off the corporations are mostly myth or massive good luck. My friend still creates some pretty amazing lighting controllers, but he submerges them in artwork and his customers could care less how he does what he does, so he's not as likely to get ripped off. The more he learned, the less he wanted to contribute to the corporate intellectual property theft system.

Just looking at my own experience, I don't think everyone invents and creates to get rich. I do think people might stop being publically inventive to avoid being robbed by corporations. I know people who create some incredible things for their homes and hobbies who will die with those secrets rather than lose them to some corporate scumbags. The Open Source computer world is a terrific example of that "look what I did" attitude and its disconnect from the profit motive. Moore's Law appears to be in stall-mode for the last near-decade. I wonder if the legal system has an effect on that?

Energy is an area where practically anyone in any area of technology and science could find the critical breakthrough that would save us all. Energy is probably the most tied-up-in-corporate-shell-games areas of invention law. Oil companies control Washington DC. They have the lawmakers, the lawyers, and paid technology thieves lurking around every corner looking to snag every invention that relates to their profits. Anyone foolish enough to announce "I've found the solution" to any energy problem is going to be sucked into a blackhole of corporate lawyers. Anyone smart enough to find the solution is probably going to be too smart to talk about it.

The founders of this country knew that the future belongs to invention and innovation. They created a patent office in 1790, George Washington signed the amendment. The office called itself "Commissioners for the Promotion of Useful Arts" or the "Board of Arts." Today, we talk about "intellectual property" and the associated rights, but that concept ought to be renamed "property of the powerful." Instead of protecting the rights of inventors, current law protects the corporate owners of concepts that were invented decades earlier. While stifling invention, our "property of the powerful" laws make sure publishing companies retain profits from art that was created decades ago, while ensuring that current artists are screwed multiple ways before their first fan experiences the art. The "property of the powerul" laws give priority to those with the most lawyers over those with the clearest claim to invention. The overall effect is to encourage inventors to stay out of the system, to keep their ideas to themselves.

Product design, today, closely reflects this constraining of mass participation in invention. Medical devices, for example, move in baby steps. New ideas find their way into products so rarely that you'd think human creativity had dried up. A friend described aeronautical engineering as "sued out," meaning that every new idea got so entangled into patent lawsuits that the industy has agreed not to do anything new. For an industry that is so dependent on the price of oil, you'd think that agreement would be the kiss of death. It probably will be. Auto manufacturers seem to have made a similar agreement. The movie "Who Killed the Electric Car" depicts an auto industry that is so connected to oil interests that the industry sabatoged its own best ideas to keep the oil companies happy. Today, every car company is offering exactly the same solutions to alternative energy and high efficiency vehicles. That ought to be proof that invention is not a significant part of those company's culture.

How do we fix this? We probably won't. If "necessity is the mother of invention," we're most likely going to be forced to wait for necessity. As it has taken a world-wide depression to force finance to mildly reform its corrupt practices, it will probably take a world-wide energy crisis to force industry to consider reforming creative property rights. Until then, we can enjoy the incremental, baby-stepping stutter-step of progress that we've learned to expect from our existing system.

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