What is the effect of “first-to-file”?

June 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

I came across this article this morning, talking about the US House of Representatives passing a patent reform bill. The thing that jumped out at me was this:

The Senate and House bills would ensure that the first person who submits an application gets the patent, switching from a “first-to-invent” system.

Now, I’m not a patent lawyer, and everything I know about this new bill comes from the article I’ve quoted, so maybe I’m missing something here, but there seem to be a couple of things very wrong with this idea.

Firstly, where does this leave the whole concept of “prior art” as a reason for invalidating an application. If I file a patent and someone can show that they invented the particular innovation first, then the way things currently work is that I can not be awarded the patent, even if I was the first to file. So if this change to “first-to-file” is to have any practical effect, it seems to me that prior-art could no longer be a cause for invalidating an application. After all, if I am first to file, and someone comes along to show they invented it first, then my application should be invalidated, and the other party would then be free to file a patent. I.e. the patent goes to first-to-invent. If the intent of the bill is to essentially remove the prior-art restriction on patents then that is simply evil. If not, then the change has no logical meaning.

Assuming the worst, that the first-to-file can be awarded the patent regardless of prior-art (i.e. a first-inventor trumping the application) then that would seem to open up an entire new industry to sit alongside patent trolling – business whose sole purpose is to look for inventions whose inventors have not patented them, and make applications for those inventions. After all, patent application is a time-consuming, costly business and many people don’t bother. A company consisting solely of patent lawyers and patent authors could really clean up, adding no value to the world apart from lining their own pockets. I have to wonder what the result would be for the original inventor. Would they end up in violation of the patent and have to pay damages? If not, then what exactly does this provision mean?

I hope I’m wrong in my interpretation of this, but given the way that intellectual property laws have been skewed and abused in recent times towards lining the pockets of big businesses, at the expense of individuals and small companies, I really fear for what this might mean.

(p.s. what’s with the mainjustice website? They seem to have pulled some trick that prevents me from selecting text on their page)

Printed books versus eBooks

June 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Paul Boag writes that proponents of printed books are clinging to the romanticism of the past. I’ve been an early adopter of eBooks. I bought an iRex iLiad when they first came out, experimented with a Sony Reader, and finally started reading eBooks in earnest when I got my Kindle, and now frequently read eBooks on the Kindle and iPad.

Paul lists several points of advantage of eBooks. They’re all good, valid points. What puzzles me is his apparent insistence that printed books have not advantages at all, or that any advantages are simply romantic throwbacks. I feel that his list focuses entirely on the technical advantages, and ignores the human element. Indeed, if your aim is to most efficiently consume a book as a sequential set of pages, chapters, words, then the eBook wins hands down. I have now read several novels on Kindle and iPad, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I like being able to size the font to compensate for fact that my eyesight is starting to flag. I like having the convenience of accessing the books on a number of different device, synced to the most recently read page. It’s not so convenient when I find that the Kindle on my bedside table has run out of battery because I haven’t used it for several days and left the network on, but that’s not a huge problem.

But in that model, the book is just something to be consumed and then discarded. Here is a photo of the bookshelf in my bedroom. It’s what I see last thing before I go to sleep at night, and first thing when I wake in the morning:

My bookshelf

Each one of those books holds memories for me. Some represent ideas that changed the way I think, others remind me of specific periods of my life, or of people I have known. I often sit on the edge of my bed of a morning or evening and let my eyes wander across the titles, reflecting on my life, or taking down a volume to flick through and read a passage.

Some were given to me as gifts. To me, this seems to be one of the aspects of books which will be most irreplaceable by eBooks. Even if we resolve the lending issues (still unavailable to owners of Kindle books outside of the US), there will simply be no equivalent to the personal experience of selecting, wrapping, giving and receiving of a paper book at Christmas, on a birthday or just because.

I’ve no doubt that over time eBooks will replace paper books more and more, just as CDs have largely replaced vinyl, and MP3s have largely replaced CDs; just as movie downloads are replacing DVDs, and more and more people will enjoy the definite technical benefits that that brings. But let’s not pretend that the experience is the same, or that something very human will not be lost in the process.

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