Patents

September 13, 2012

We’ve all experienced it. You’ve just caught the best wave of the day; the crowd on the beach are going “oohhh” and “aaahhh” as they admire your moves; even your dog is panting with pride at his master’s brilliance. Then, dammit, you find your cellphone battery has gone flat, just as you were ordering a pizza for delivery to the beach.

Well, this frustration has become a thing of the past, thanks to the creative genius of Mr Anthony William Jones of Garden Grove, CA. With his solar surfboard (United States Patent 8262425) you can just plug your phone into the convenient plug point provided on your surfboard. When the phone’s charged, you could use the plug for your hair dryer or portable TV.

Nobody actually needs a solar surfboard, of course, in fact I’m willing to bet that the people who want one are a vanishingly small minority. I don’t expect these things to be mass-produced and offered for sale in surf stores anywhere. So why patent it? Mr Jones is unlikely to make any money from licensing his patent. So what are patents for?

In theory they are supposed to encourage innovation by giving the patent-holder a monopoly over his invention for a certain amount of time. But, as Yogi Berra said, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” Patents only make sense if (a) the effort involved in researching and developing the invention is expensive and time-consuming, and (b) the invention is easy and cheap for competitors to copy. This applies neither to electric surfboards nor to most of the other patents that are approved by patent offices around the world.

The number of patents granted is staggering. In the U.S. the patent office has approved over 8 million patents. Some of these are, in my opinion, ridiculous. A patent is supposed to be novel, useful and not obvious. But patents are granted for things that existed long before the patent was applied for (buttons on a computer’s GUI interface, for example); for things that are useless (like solar surfboards); and for things that are obvious (a carrying handle on a heavy object). Companies enter into patent wars, suing and counter-suing each other for astonishing sums of money—see the recent litigation between Apple and Samsung—which cannot be good either for the companies involved, nor for the consumers of their products. Patent ‘trolls’ buy up patent rights and use them to extort money from manufacturers who cannot afford the breathtaking costs involved in defending themselves against the trolls, which again has the effect of driving up costs for the consumer. The net effect of all this is that innovation is stifled rather than encouraged.

What can be done about this? My suggestion is that patents should only be granted in cases where the applicant could suffer substantial losses if his invention were copied by competitors, and that patent offices should be far more rigorous in establishing whether or not the proposed invention is indeed novel, useful and not obvious. Moreover, ideas should not be patentable. This would prevent patents being granted for computer software, for example. Software code is copyrighted, so the code itself can be protected, but what that code does is an idea, not a thing, so it would not be patentable.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License


Lady and the Loonies

June 28, 2012

It has reached my ears that there exists a person called Lady Gaga. I don’t know whether she is a member of the British aristocracy, or “Lady” is her name, like that dog in the movie, but I’m told that she makes her living by donning surprising costumes and singing and dancing. She is coming to sing and dance in Cape Town soon, and I say good luck to her. I shan’t be attending her performance because that sort of thing isn’t what floats my boat; but I’m quite sure that there are plenty of people who will enjoy what she has to offer in the way of entertainment.

Her imminent arrival has also flushed the usual crew of crackpots and lunatics out of their malodorous lairs. They have set up a facebook page called “Christians against Lady Gaga & Beyonce’s SA tours!!” They claim—amongst other things—that Lady Gaga is a satanist and may even be the bride of satan. Here’s a sample of the comments left on the site:–
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Art Raises its Head

May 24, 2012

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.
John F. Kennedy

A week or two ago I wrote about my “blind spot” with reference to the visual arts in general and, in particular, The Scream by Edvard Munch. Now a very different painting has been dominating the news, not because of the absurd price it commanded,–it sold for a modest $16,000–but because it depicted the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, with his penis hanging out of his trousers.

The Spear would probably not have been in the news at all were the South African government not as ignorant of the Streisand effect as they are of constitutional law, philosophy, civics, economics, geography, democracy and science. They brought suit in the High Court seeking an injunction against the painting being displayed in the Goodman Gallery, or on the website of a newspaper, the City Press. Their grounds are that the painting is disrespectful and impairs the President’s constitutional right to dignity. The case will be heard today, but the outcome is moot because the image is now hosted on thousands of websites worldwide. Oh, hell, let’s make it one more:–

The Spear


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Road Rage

May 17, 2012

In June 1999 Kevin Duncan was brutally bludgeoned to death with a hockey stick on Ou Kaapse Weg in Cape Town. The motive for the crime was road rage. Last month a cyclist lost his life when he was struck by a car that had been forced off the road by an enraged taxi driver.

A survey conducted by market research company Synovate in 2005 showed that South Africa has the worst record of road rage incidents amongst the 10 countries sampled, and indications are that we are becoming worse. Causes of road rage are ascribed to the “me first” mindset of South African drivers, congestion on our roads leading to frazzled nerves, lack of enforcement of traffic rules, and poor training of learner drivers.
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Scream!

May 3, 2012

I have said before that I have a blind spot when it comes to the visual arts. I just can’t get excited about viewing a painting. Poetry or music can move me to tears, but a painting is just there to break up an expanse of blank wall. Now I’m sure that the fault lies with me, not the artists, and that those who love paintings do so genuinely. But can a work that looks–to me, at least–as though it was perpetrated by a talented seven-year-old with his new box of crayons really be worth $120 million?

That’s the price realised at a Sotheby’s auction for Edvard Munch’s The Scream. I should say one of them, because he painted four pictures with the same title. Just to give some perspective on the preposterous price paid for this work: the same sum could build a brand new container ship equipped with a full suit of containers; it could buy 46 Bugatti Veryons, the most expensive car in the world, with change left over for a few cases of Pol Roger vintage champagne to drink in them; it could pay 66,667 thirld world workers for an entire year.
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Great British Mystery

April 25, 2012

I love mysteries. Sherlock Holmes, Poirot and Precious Ramotswe are fictional detectives with whom I have spent many a happy hour; ‘Sherlock’, ‘CSI’, ‘The Mentalist’ and similar shows form the bulk of my television viewing. Therefore it’s no surprise that I’ve been following the real-life mystery of the death of Gareth Williams with close attention.

Here’s what happened. On the 23rd August 2010 a locked red sports bag was found in the bath at Gareth Williams’ flat in London. Inside was his naked, decomposing body, and under the body–inside the bag–was the key to the lock. It transpired that Mr Williams was employed by MI6, but not in a James Bondish role; he was a mathematical boffin who worked in the cipher department, and, apparently, under secondment to GCHQ, the NSA at Fort Meade, the CIA and the FBI. There were no signs of a break-in or struggle on the premises; there was no forensic evidence to link anyone to the crime; and the coroner could not determine the cause of death. Because it was determined that Mr Williams could not possibly have locked the bag whilst he was inside it, they labelled the death ‘suspicious and unexplained’.
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Bun Fight

April 18, 2012

The last time Scallywag and I took a long-haul flight (Cape Town to London), we ordered Kosher meals. Our reason was not religious–we aren’t Jewish; we just wanted to be fed first, so we could take our Mickey Finns and be asleep by the time the cabin attendants had finished doing their “chicken or beef” routine with everyone else. It worked perfectly. I didn’t consider the fact that, had the plane been hijacked by al-Qaeda, we would have been first against the bulkhead. Perhaps next time I’ll order Halaal instead. The point is that it doesn’t matter a jot what logo or Imam’s or Rabbi’s signature appears on the packaging.

That’s why I was mystified by the brouhaha that broke out at Easter over a Halaal sticker that was affixed to the packaging of hot cross buns by a local retail chain. Some Christians got hot under the collar for some unfathomable reason. Here are some of the things they had to say

I hate woolworths… How can you do that to the Christians, I hope that God will have mercy on you. And dnt be surprised if your shops run bankrupt.. I will pray to my living God and you will see what he is capable of!

Nothing, so far. Either he’s ignoring you or he isn’t capable of much. Or perhaps he doesn’t exist.
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