What would happen if the Patent Office burnt down?

Many years ago, we were trying to decommission a particular application that was way past its sell-by date. Step One in decommissioning was to price it and plan it. And it didn’t matter what we tried, there was some sort of Conway’s-Law-Meets-Organisational-Inertia in operation, and the immune system kicked in, and the answers were always the same, regardless of the application in question: 18 months and 2 million bucks. [I guess it was similar to the business plans floating around during the First Net Boom, every one of which said Three Years and 75 million bucks :-) ]

And then something happened. There was a flood in the machine room, the hardware was not replaceable, things were beyond redemption. And maybe 300,000 bucks and six weeks later, the application had been successfully decommissioned.

That made me think. Maybe the way to decommission systems was to pretend there was a flood. Necessity and mother and invention and all that.

When I first got involved with the mess that is IPR today, I mused occasionally “What would happen if all past patents just disappeared, and we had to start afresh? What would the “new” IPR look like? Why?”

So it was with some amusement that I read recently that we had already experienced something similar. I’d bought a book some months ago while travelling in the US, and it had entered the dark world that was my library, never to be seen again. Until this week, when I’ve been working on packing the library up, that is.

It’s a fantastic book. Called How Invention Begins, it’s written by John H Lienhard, Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering and History at the University of Houston. I was first attracted to Lienhard when I saw a review by him of Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, another subject close to my heart.

In the book, Lienhard recounts the case of the US Patent Office: officially opened in 1790, the building was “hopelessly outdated and overcrowded” by 1836, and burnt down soon after. “The fire destroyed the office and everything in it”. And a new Patent Office arose from those ashes, rebuilt from scratch. Barely 20% of the original patents could be reconstructed.

But that’s almost an aside, stated here only to make the point that we’ve had a period of “patent amnesty” not that long ago.

Lienhard’s book has really challenged me. He describes the process of invention much like Doc Searls would talk about snowballs in blogs: a series of small events, with many different and disconnected people participating, somehow serendipitously coming up with coherent inventions over time. Or maybe it’s David Weinberger and Small Pieces Loosely Joined, the way Lienhard describes it.
He makes a number of fascinating points, things I have thought about but not really comprehended, I needed to read his prose to get to my Meringue Moment.

Four key points stand out:

One, that invention is a response to a community want, a communal hunger for something, a passion that creates a Zeitgeist that must be obeyed.

Two, that the invention is actually made up of a whole lot of small pieces, whose ideas came from different people, whose attempts at converting ideas into inventions came from different people, whose experiences of such attempts were shared openly most of the time, and that a whole heap of time tended to pass before a coherent invention came out in response to the Zeitgeist.

Three, that we tend to celebrate the Light-At-The-End-Of-The-Tunnel, somehow imbuing heroic values to the last person in that chain, often not knowing what went before, sometimes not caring.

Four, this need of ours, to name and label and date and time the “invention” and its “inventor”, is contrary to what really happened, misinformed at best and corrupt at worst.

There are many other ideas in the book, it will take me time to explore and digest them. But what I have read and understood so far supports everything I espouse about collaboration and teamwork and sharing and co-creation of value and serendipity and community.

More later. Probably within a week, I plan to watch as much of the Ryder Cup as I can while packing and lazing.

Let me know what you think

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