The Patent That Never Was
       click here to go back to the home page


Inventors rank high in our pantheon of cultural heroes. We tend to think they deserve rich rewards: if someone has a great idea that makes life a little better for millions of people, surely fortune and fame are fair compensation. Yet, when it comes to rewarding and protecting the greatest achievements, the history of twentieth-century invention suggests that the patent system has at best a mixed record. A few milestones:

Transistor. Probably the single most important invention of the century. William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain invented it at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey, and they received patent No. 2,524,035 for it: "Three-Electrode Circuit Element Utilizing Semiconductive Materials." They also won the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics — considerably more useful, from the fame-and-fortune point of view, because Bell Telephone already had enough of a monopoly, and the world has gone on to manufacture billions of transistors daily without paying licensing fees. It would be hard to argue that that's either unfair or bad for the global economy.

Communications Satellite. A great idea traceable to a single inventor, Arthur C. Clarke, a 28-year-old Royal Air Force officer later to become famous as a science fiction writer. He sketched the whole idea, with detailed calculations and drawings, in the journal Wireless World in 1945; the small article fee was all he ever got. In his slow-paced world, the timing was wrong for a patent — the idea was years from becoming practicable. "It is with somewhat mixed feelings," Clarke wrote later, "that I claim to have originated one of the most commercially valuable ideas of the 20th century, and to have sold it for just 12."

Velcro. Occasionally the system does work as we imagine. Georges de Mestral, a Swiss inventor, conceived of the now-indispensable hook-and-loop fastening technology in 1948, not in his garage, but supposedly after getting his pants entangled in cockleburrs and examining them under a microscope. He patented a version of what he saw and founded a company that made him extremely rich.

World Wide Web. Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web and the Web browser — that is, the world as we now know it — pretty much single-handedly, starting in about 1989, when he was working as a software engineer at CERN, the particle-physics laboratory in Geneva. He didn't patent it, or any part of it. On the contrary, he has labored tirelessly to keep cyberspace open and nonproprietary.
   So this is the Patent That Never Was — its nonexistence directly responsible for the growth of cyberspace. "Anyone who puts a small gloss on this fundamental technology, calls it proprietary, and then tries to keep others from building further on it, is a thief," says the Internet pioneer Tim O'Reilly. "The gift was given to all of us, and anyone who tries to make it their own is stealing our patrimony."

Copyright 2000 James Gleick