I was just reading a posting from the EFF about their new “patent busting” crusade. I think conceptually, patents are a good idea, but the current implementation if broken.
The idea of a patent is to give an inventor a legally protected monopoly on the production of an invention for a limited time in exchange for releasing the secrets of the invention into the public domain. This allows inventors to make money and gives them an incentive to invent, while preserving and recording the ideas of the invention for all time.
The problem is that it is difficult to distinguish evolutionary ideas from revolutionary ones. Or even valid ones, if it comes to that. Consider the EFF’s current target, the Clear-Channel patent.
Clear-Channel got the idea to record and edit live concerts in realtime and then produce many CD’s in parallel so that a few minutes after the concert was over, the fans could buy a CD of the concert they just attended. Its a great idea, and I hope they make lots of money with it.
However, is the idea patentable? Well, the defacto answer is yes, since they were granted a patent on the idea. The EFF is focusing on busting the patent by looking for prior art, but I think the idea shouldn’t have been allowed to be patented in the first place.
There is no new technology in the Clear-Channel process. Capturing sound to digital certainly wasn’t new. Real-time editing of sound isn’t new. Writing the same digital signal to multiple writers in parallel isn’t new. They might have had to spend a little time and effort to make a system that puts it all together, but was any of it revolutionary? I doubt it. Anybody could have done it.
The question really revolves on whether or not the idea was suffciently unique and innovative to grant them a 15 year, renewable monopoly on the idea? Keep in mind that the patent covers the idea and the device and would apply to any real-time capture process that writes to multiple CDs.
I think that the idea fails the test. It has been suggested that the best test of the applicability of a patent is whether or not the inventor would have made the invention if they would not have been granted the patent. I think in this case the clear answer is yes.