Fraunhofer Lines

Wikipedia defines Fraunhofer lines thus:

In physics and optics, the Fraunhofer lines are a set of spectral lines named for the German physicist Joseph von Fraunhofer (1787–1826). The lines were originally observed as dark features (absorption lines) in the optical spectrum of the Sun.

The English chemist William Hyde Wollaston was in 1802 the first person to note the appearance of a number of dark features in the solar spectrum. In 1814, Fraunhofer independently rediscovered the lines and began a systematic study and careful measurement of the wavelength of these features. In all, he mapped over 570 lines, and designated the principal features with the letters A through K, and weaker lines with other letters.

A set of dark features in the optical spectrum of the Sun.


A set of 574 dark features identified by Joseph von Fraunhofer.

The same Fraunhofer after whom a certain Fraunhofer Society was named.

The same Fraunhofer Society who invented MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3, commonly referred to as MP3.

The same MP3 patents at the heart of the Microsoft/Alcatel-Lucent patent lawsuit.

The same Microsoft whose Chairman, Bill Gates, presciently said in 1991:

“If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today’s ideas were invented and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today…A future start-up with no patents of its own will be forced to pay whatever price the giants choose to impose.”

The same patent system that allows patents like this one:

United States Patent Application 20060259306
Kind Code A1
Roberts; Timothy Wace November 16, 2006

Business method protecting jokes


The specification describes a method of protecting jokes by filing patent applications therefor, and gives examples of novel jokes to be thus protected. Specific jokes to be protected by the process of the invention include stories about animals playing ball-games, in which alliteration is used in the punch-line; a scheme for raising money for charity by providing dogs for carriage by Underground passengers; and the joke that consists in filing a patent application to protect jokes. A novel type of patent application, one that claims itself, and hence is termed `homoproprietary`, is disclosed.

Sean asked me what I thought of the Microsoft versus Alcatel-Lucent spat. Something I’ve been thinking about for a while. So what’s my answer?

Sean, I feel sad. I think we’re heading for a period of more and more intense patent lawsuits as the system crumbles under its own weight. I think we’re already at a stage where companies genuinely believe they have to have a bunch of patents in their armoury, in order to do battle with other companies with other patents in other armouries. I think we’ve already gone past the offensive/defensive/frivolous stage, we now have creatures like cross-patents and even self-referential ones.

I think there are people around who would prefer to employ patents rather than people.

And I think creativity will suffer as a result of all this. For a while.

As long as we have sets of dark features obscuring the Sun of our creativity, dark features that make up our broken patent system.

7 thoughts on “Fraunhofer Lines”

  1. JP: First – it sounds like you’re feeling better; there’s a bit more bite returning to your posts.
    Second – how much damage to innovation and creativity do you see occurring before we collectively smarten up about patents? I fear that the damage my well be irreversible until such time as an entire economy collapses … pessimistic, maybe – but possible.
    What steps can we take to avoid that outcome?

  2. Friend of mine works in a small startup that does add-on services for telcos. He said their clients are reluctant to buy anything from a small vendor like them if they don’t have patents to protect their product. Doesn’t sound good, indeed.

  3. Sad and true. But you must not forget that what you quote there is a A1 document meaning a patent application and that can be any nonsense under the sun as long as the formal requirements for the filing office are met. Translate that to the fact that if such an application would become a granted patent, an unlikely occurence, but the USPTO is always good for a surprise or two, it is totally unenforcable even by present patent law as the telling of a joke in private is still… not a commercial activity, thus excluded of patent protection.

    There are a lot of such applications and in themselves, they are the best jokes.

  4. Hi JP – good to see you posting regularly! The ‘joke patent’ is just an application – not an granted patent. It will be interesting to watch its progress, though, and see what happens… Here is a link that should find this patent if/when it is granted.

  5. Someone who prefers to remain anonymous writes: “We’ve seen people use bogus DMCA claims to shut up speech they don’t like. Now, it turns out that if you demonstrate security vulnerabilities, you may have to deal with the threat of patent lawsuit as well. IOActive, a security firm based in Seattle, built a hand-held device capable of reading and cloning the prox cards used for building access in many companies. They demo’d the device at the RSA Conference and were going to give an in-depth talk at Black Hat in DC. HID Global, who makes the cards, found out about it and sent them a letter claiming that the cloning device infringes on HID patents. Faced with the threat of a patent infringement lawsuit, IOActive pulled the presentation.” Jennifer Granick, over at Wired News, does a good job highlighting the ridiculous consequences of an action like this: “Imagine if, in the 1970s, the tobacco companies had patented devices to measure the health effects of smoking, then threatened lawsuits against anyone who researched their products.

  6. I think there are one or two misunderstandings. As has been pointed out, the document you quote has not been allowed: it is merely an application. But, if granted (a big ‘if’), it need not be unenforceable. To start with, there is no recognised exception in US patent law for private use as such (unless it amounts to ‘philosophical enquiry’?). Secondly, jokes are not necessarily told only in private. Thirdly, a main object of the invention is not the specific jokes related, which are given by way of example only, but the general idea of protecting novel jokes by filing patent applications on them. That act is not private.

  7. While patents and copyrights were originally designed to encourage creative behavior they have begun to do the opposite, and therefore need to be changed to match the original intent. People are now creating for the sake of others instead of themselves and so patents and copyrights need to be changed. Just my opinion

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