If Thomas Edison were alive, what would he think of all the patent lawsuits being filed today. Would the threat of litigation stop him from inventing? Thomas Edison had 1,093 U.S. patents to his name, when he died eighty-one years ago, on October 18, 1931. And, he had several hundred more foreign patents from Great Britain, France, Germany, and other countries. But obtaining a patent is not so easy today.

In a recent New York Times article, “The Patent, Used as a Sword,” authors Charles Duhigg and Steve Lohr write,  “in the smartphone industry alone . . . as much as $20 billion was spent on patent litigation and patent purchases in the last two years—an amount equal to eight Mars rover missions.”

Duhigg told NPR’s Fresh Air host Terry Gross that widespread lawsuits are stifling inventors and innovation.  “It almost goes without saying that when you are a startup,” said Duhigg, “one of the first things you do is you start setting aside money to defend yourself against patent lawsuits, because any successful company, even moderately successful, is going to get hit by a patent lawsuit from someone who is just trying to look for a payout. ”

Edison was the Steve Jobs of his day. Roberta Baxter, author of Morgan Reynolds Illuminated Progress: The Story of Thomas Edison, writes,

 “Edison’s success was supported by his curiosity about the world, his resilience when experiments failed, his optimism, and his hard work. His attitudes can be summed up by two of his most famous quotes: ‘There is no substitute for hard work;’ ‘Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.’ ”

 In the past twenty years, there has been a huge increase in the number of patent applications worldwide, resulting in a large and growing backlog in unprocessed applications. By one estimate, more than 4 million applications are waiting to be processed in patent offices around the globe. In the U.S. alone, there are hundreds of thousands of outstanding patent applications.

 According to Duhigg and Lohr, patents were originally meant to encourage innovation. However, they write,

  “. . . what’s happened, particularly in the last 15 years . . . is that rather than patents becoming something that encourages innovation, patents have become essentially a barrier, a toll gate on the road of innovation because patents have become so broad, so amorphous that if someone can get a patent on kind of a completely commonplace technology, what they can do is they can say to everyone else: Listen, if you want to invent this widget that you’ve invented on your own, that hundreds of people have invented at this point, I own the intellectual property on that widget. So I can stop you from using or selling that widget, or I can force you to pay me for it. ”

Fortunately for Edison, he lived and invented in a less litigious atmosphere than that of today’s inventors. Baxter writes, “Part of Edison’s legacy can be seen in the fact that at his death, the lights could only be turned off for one minute. People had become too dependent on them to go longer than that. Edison’s work prompted many to call him ‘Inventor of the World.’ His development of electrical components such as fuses, switches, and light bulbs put him in the forefront of the electrical industry. His favorite invention, the phonograph, was the beginning of the multibillion dollar music industry. . . . Decades after his death, his work still illuminates the path of progress.”

Sharon F. Doorasamy

Managing Editor

For more information about the “Inventor of the World,” check out Roberta Baxter’s Illuminated Progress: The Story of Thomas Edison (ISBN: 978-1-59935-085-1).

Published in: on October 17, 2012 at 11:18 am  Comments (1)  
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