Archive of UserLand's first discussion group, started October 5, 1998.

Re: Patents are the 18th century equivalent of open source

Author:Ken Meltsner
Posted:10/25/1999; 7:40:15 AM
Topic:Jeff Bezos' Patent
Msg #:12314 (In response to 12276)
Prev/Next:12313 / 12315

The problem is not that no one reads patents or learns from them; it's that few engineers/scientists read *anything*, IMHO. More below:

Our local newspaper prints patent summaries -- I find them oddly entertaining: the Pampers research team's patents are interesting to me as the parent of newly toilet-trained toddler, and how can you resist the opportunity to find out about the state of the art in boar semen collection bags?

When I was a real (non-software) engineer, I read patents frequently. If you're trying to develop new ways to make hollow airfoils (my work from 1988-1993 at GE), you'd better read patents because that's where all the interesting information is.

Perhaps I'm biased: I hold two patents (co-authored while I was at GE) and I tend to read the open literature (both journals and patent) whenever I tackle a new problem. Most people don't read at all. Not journals, proceedings, reports, or patents -- nothing.

Reading isn't considered "real work" by many engineers. That's a deficiency of our engineering curricula, IMHO. Most of my classes (nearly 20 years ago) made poor use of journals and patents; only one integrated patents into the course. It was a great course, since it covered interesting (to an engineer) topics like why certain plastics aren't used for soda bottles, or why Verifine juice bottles have such wide mouths, or how four drunk professors can break an entire set of Corelle in just one evening.

Too many scientifically-minded professors like to present the end result of years of debate and research. It's easier than discussing the dead ends and controversies as well, and there's rarely enough time to show that our view of a science or an engineering discipline is the result of human elements as well as technical ones.

I took a number of literature courses, though, and I learned that it was important to understand earlier, possibly "discredited", viewpoints if you wanted to understand the context for later criticism. It's the same with science and engineering: it's impossible to decide whether a specific patent is valid unless you have a good feeling for the "state of the art" when it was written.

It's too bad that most engineers and scientists don't get a chance to develop the same appreciation for what has gone before. Would programmers work more effectively if they learned about the debates over structured programming, or how to program vector graphics that can be displayed within a single display cycle?

Those who forget MS-DOS, after all, will be condemned to re-invent it.

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