6. Reflections on Technology: Patents

Science pays homage to its creators by naming laws, principles, and units after them.  This renders the person’s name immortal in the realm of science.  Thus, for as long as science and civilization continue to exist, one will refer to Archimedes’ Principle, Newton’s Laws,  Fourier’s Series, to Mendel’s laws, the Bohr Atom, etc.

In the world of technology profit takes precedence over name or fame.  Consequently, only rarely does one refer to an invention in combination with the name of the inventor.  Even the Edison lamp is no longer current. One does not speak of Carothers’ nylon or Carlson’s xero­graphy.  One reason for this is that very soon the original invention is modified and newer forms of the same idea come into wider use.  The primary reward for technological invention is through the assurance that the inventor of a new device or idea will reap financial benefits for the ingenuity.  This finds expression in the form of a patent.

It was a practice in medieval England for a monarch to confer upon same of his loyal friends and relatives certain privileges, which ranged from honorific titles to monopolies in the sale of certain economically advantageous items.  These privileges were spelled out in an open letter for all to see.  Such open letters were known by their Latin description as lettrae patentes, which meant precisely that.  (Recall the English word, patently: clearly, obviously.)  The reigning monarch could dispense such rights and honors because it was assumed that he had the royal prerogative to do so.  However, in the seventeenth century the British Parliament managed to deprive King James I of this authority, and allowed him to grant privileges only to those who in­troduced any “new manufacture within the realm.”  This was the origin of the prac­tice of giving patents.

Since then many laws pertaining to patents have been passed in England as well as in many other countries.  In the U.S.  Constitution (1787) it is stated that Congress should have the 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.”  Patentability itself was defined in 1897 in the following terms:

Any person who has invented or discovered any new and useful art, machine, manufacture or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, not known or used by any others in this country before his invention or discovery thereof, and not patented or described in any printed publication in this or any foreign country before his invention or discovery thereof for more than two years prior to his application…., may, upon payment of fees required by law … obtain a patent thereof.

Aside from an official certificate to the effect that the individual (or organization) on whose name the patent is issued is to enjoy the associated rights exclusively for a specified number of years, the patent is a substantial document that gives a variety of information about the invention and its author, such as an abstract and a detailed description of the patented item, its relevance, its actual and potential value, the name and address of the inventor, references to related efforts, etc.  Being a legal document it is usually filed through an attorney or a patent agent.

In applying for the patent on a device one is also  required to furnish a working model, because many beautiful ideas, very elegantly expressed in words and drawings, somehow don’t work when actually tried.  The most frequently recurring idea of this kind relates to the so-called perpetual motion devices which either claim to generate energy endlessly out of nowhere (in violation of the First Law of Thermodynamics: the total amount of energy in a closed system always remains the same) or pretend to be devices with one hundred percent efficiency (violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics: a 100% efficient engine is impossible even in prin­ciple).

The variety of contexts in which patents can be secured is considerable.  They in­clude methods related to the treatment of raw materials, to the construction of large structures, to pharmaceuticals, and to food preservation, as also weapons systems, games, toys, special kinds of clothes ware, cosmetics, entertainments, appliances, farming techniques, energy producing devices, etc., etc.  What about living organisms? Can these, if generated by scientific techniques, be patented? It had for long been allowed that asexually grown plants may be patented.  And in recent years, when new microorganisms were developed in the laboratory by the use of genetic engineering techniques, scientists tried to patent these, but were told that these could not be patented.  The matter was brought to court, and finally the Supreme Court sided with the scientists.  In other words, bacteria created by humans in the laboratory have become patentable inventions.  This is understandable since such bacteria could be used for practical (money-producing) purposes.  However, discoveries of scientific laws or principles cannot be patented

Not all applications for obtaining a patent receive favorable responses.  It has been estimated that of about one hundred thousand applications that are made each year, only about 65% are considered by the U.S. Patent Office to be patent-worthy.  While this may suggest that too many people tend to imagine themselves to be more origi­nal than they actually are, the inventiveness of the people is also reflected in the fact that more than four million patents have been granted thus far.

September 12, 2010


About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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One Response to 6. Reflections on Technology: Patents

  1. Pingback: 6. Reflections on Technology: Patents « V. V. Raman's Spurts of … | The law and You

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