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Mark Lemley’s Socialist Theory of Invention

Mark Lemley’s Socialist Theory of Invention

Professor Mark Lemley has asserted that inventions are really created by society and the idea of individual inventors coming up with important inventions is a myth.  I have shown that the broad macroeconomic facts do not support his theory.  Now John Howells and Ron Katznelson have written a paper showing the specific facts Lemley uses to support his thesis are just plain wrong.  Dr. Katznelson has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and is a highly successful inventor and entrepreneur, unlike Professor Lemley who does not have a technical background and is not a patent attorney.  This makes Dr. Katznelson eminently qualified to examine Lemley’s assertion of multiple simultaneous invention.  Dr. Howells also has a technical background.  A common mistake of non-technical people, who do not understand a technology, is to group two inventions together that are distinct and both important.  For instance, they may consider the invention of AM radio, FM radio and superheterodyne receivers as all the invention of the radio.  However, each of these inventions is both distinct and highly significant.

Howells and Katznelson explain, “that Lemley has most of his facts wrong, misstates the holdings of several court cases, and misunderstands the commercial realities that surrounded implementation of these technologies.”  They show the Lemley does not clearly define each invention.  As the paper explains “under patent law‘s formal definition, the word invention refers to a single idea—Edison‘s high resistance filament, the Wright brothers’ wing-warping, Watt‘s steam engine condenser, etc.”  Anyone with even an elementary familiarity of patents knows that simultaneous inventions are very rare.  The Patent Office has a procedure (soon to be extinct) to determine which of two or more people are the true inventors of an invention.  These cases are extremely rare involving around 0.01% of all patent application filed.

As an example of Lemley’s gross negligence of the facts, with respect to Edison’s invention of the high resistance incandescent light bulb, the authors show that a court found:

It is very clear to us that, in the original application for the patent sued on, the applicants had no such object in view as that of claiming all carbon made from fibrous and textile substances as a conductor for an incandescing electric lamp. Nothing on which to base any such claim is disclosed in the original application. We have carefully compared it with the amended application, on which the patent was issued, and are fully satisfied that, after Edison’s inventions on this subject had been published to the world, there was an entire change of base on the part of Sawyer and Man, and that the application was amended to give it an entirely different direction and purpose from what it had in its original form. (emphasis added)

But Lemley ignores this part of the history and asserts that this is a case of simultaneous invention.

The actual invention of Sawyer and Man was:

improvements were directed at having a lamp filled with an absorbent of carbonic acid gas, a spring-loaded feeder feeding a vertical carbon pencil upwards as it was consumed and a design for cheap carbon pencil renewal with easy sealing and exhausting of air. Lemley neglects to tell us that despite these improvements, and even after Edison’s invention, many of the [Sawyer & Man] lamps failed to last more than a few hours.

Lemley also ignores that :

the electrical resistance of these (pre-Edison) lamps was typically only a few Ohms and thus required large currents to power them, rendering power losses through long distribution wires prohibitive. Lemley also neglects to tell us that Sawyer & Man‘s light bulbs could not be used effectively more than a few feet away from a generator, and therefore had little commercial practicality

Please read the whole paper, A Critique of Mark Lemley’s “The Myth of the Sole Inventor”  I will leave you one final quote from the paper.

One can only speculate how much longer it would have taken someone else to come up with Edison‘s idea had it not been for Edison‘s reliance on the patent system and the revenue it protected to support his research and development over the two years that he spent on inventing his incandescent electric lamp.


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