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Monday, June 06, 2005

For the sake of progress

I used to tell people that when I grew up I wanted to be an inventor. I envisioned coming up with lots of great ideas and devices that would make people’s lives better. Toilets that flushed themselves! Trash that took itself out! Grass that could be mowed automatically (they’ve already got a vacuum cleaner; it’s only a matter of time). The uncanny relationship between chores and inventions is no coincidence, I’m sure…

So I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine who knows something about patents and inventions because I have an idea. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a great idea. It’s no iPod or cell phone. But it would likely be a very convenient thing for a lot of people.

I’ve discovered that being an inventor is not as easy as one might have thought. First of all, you can’t patent an idea. What you actually patent are methods. That toilet-flushing idea? All about a “method to automate something via infrared beam.” Getting a patent involves some very detailed and technical writing about how this method is original and useful. Second, it also tends to involve thousands in lawyer fees. Great. So much for the intellectual might of the common man. Third, searching the database of existing and proposed patents is no picnic. In fact, it’s downright snooze-inducing. It also involves using exciting search features such as search by title (ttl/) or various Boolean terms (and, or, not).

And yet, there’s something intriguing about trying to patent an idea and market something original to the world. After all, the Founding Fathers saw the generation of new ideas so crucial to the success of society that patent law was even envisioned in the Constitution (Article I, section 8): “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.”

So maybe I should patent this idea (or method). In the name of progress, of course.

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