Flexible Thinking: Intellectual Property—How it Works for the Benefit of All


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Innovation is the lifeblood of technological progress. It has been the driving force in electronics for over a century. In general, intellectual property (IP) refers to innovations, those creations of the human mind. This includes everything from physical inventions to computer programs to trademarks and, as well, to trade secrets. But it also includes works of art and music which are commonly protected by copyrights.

If one has high interest in physical innovations related to electronics, one of the best places to explore and discover it is at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) website. Using the Boolean search tools the patent office provides there, it is possible to find anything they have in their huge database of millions of patents. Because patents tend to precede actual products, the USPTO’s website is a great place to get a glimpse of the wonderful things that might be lying in the road ahead. They have information not just on issued patents but also many patents which are pending in the published applications section. Following are some thoughts and observations on the important matter of intellectual property and patents. 

Why Patents?
The patent system is arguably among the most important gifts that the Founding Fathers of the United States left us with. Its foundation can be found in the U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8, which reads in its entirety:

“The congress shall have power… To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

The idea for providing patents is one that the founders of this nation borrowed from the old world in England in the Statute of Monopolies of 1624, wherein the English Parliament endowed inventors with the sole right to their inventions for a period of 14 years. It also seems clear from the words that there was an understanding and likely even a prescient knowledge that the protection of the rights of inventors, by granting them limited monopoly over their ideas for a period of time, was key to getting them to share ideas and discoveries that would be important to the building of a new nation. There was intent to offer protection only to the writings and discoveries of authors and inventors and then only to the end of promoting science and the useful arts which would benefit the nation.

How It Benefits
This protection of intellectual property and right to practice safely one’s ideas has proven to be a magnet for many who came to this country to seek out their fortunes in this new land of opportunity with government guarantees and, in the process, to make life better not only for themselves but for everyone else in society. It continues to this day.

The concept of the patent is now universally embraced at high levels on an intellectual basis, if not in actual practice, everywhere down to the level of business. Today, while a great many countries have their own patent systems, since 1970, the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT), an international patent law treaty to provide a unified procedure for filing patent applications to protect inventions from member countries, has been in place. A patent application filed under the PCT is referred to as international application (also known as a PCT application), however, the PCT does not lead to the granting of an international patent, as one must still file separately for a patent in each nation where protection is sought. 

This is an ongoing effort to try to find cooperation among the many different countries of the world to make something more useful and enforceable. However, concerns over commerce and competitiveness have caused many business leaders to turn a blind eye to patents, especially in some of the newer members of the international business community where the idea of intellectual property is not given much weight. In fact, the more cynical (practical?) folks in most industries commonly assume that a patent is of no value until it is tested in court and backed by the weight and force of governments which can restrict trade. This widely-held belief is something that must delight litigators around the globe, for they make their greatest personal gains from conflict. They are always assured a win, no matter what the outcome is for their client. As many haggard veteran inventors have observed: “If you think getting a patent is expensive, try defending one.”

There is another other form of intellectual property such as trademarks and copyrights which are likely familiar to most readers. Copyright law can be traced to the English Statute of 1710, which secured to authors of books the sole right of publishing them for designated periods.

Perhaps the most common, however, is the trade secret, special knowhow, or a formula that cannot be easily gleaned. The most famous trade secrets are often associated with foods—recipes and flavored drink mixes such as Coca-Cola. The trade secret protects the individual’s or business’s intellectual property by not disclosing the details of the product as would be required by a patent. 

In closing, there is an amusing anecdote of historical note worth sharing. Charles H. Duell was the U.S. Commissioner of Patents in the late 19th century. Mr. Duell incredulously suggested in 1899 that it might be a good idea to shut down the patent office because “everything that can be invented has been invented.” The number of U.S. issued patents granted as of December 1899 was 640,000. The number of patents issued at the time of writing is 11,089,721.

Clearly, Mr. Duell was just a wee bit off.

This column originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Design007 Magazine.

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