Artificial Scarcity Watch: Barack Obama vs. Innovation

August 4th, 2011  |  Published in anti-Star Trek  |  1 Comment

Barack Obama is so full of bad policy ideas these days, some of them seem to be slipping under the radar. But this piece by Zach Carter at the Huffington Post zeroes in on one especially bizarre bit of the President’s posturing around the debt ceiling deal: his claim that one of the best ways to create jobs is for Congress to “send me a bill that would make it easier for entrepreneurs to patent a new product or idea, because we can’t give innovators in other countries a big leg up when it comes to opening new businesses and creating new jobs”.

Anyone who’s been reading my recent posts about intellectual property law can probably guess what I think about this: the last thing we need right now is to make it easier to get patents. As NPR’s Planet Money makes clear in a great follow-up to their This American Life piece on patent trolls, the flood of vague and useless patents is already gumming up the legal system with litigation and probably costing jobs. In fact, Intellectual Ventures, the villian of the TAL piece, turns up in the HuffPo piece as one of the companies lobbying against anything that weakens patent protections.

But as with most things in our political system, the patent “reform” legislation has turned into a gigantic contest of corporate lobbyists, with the rest of us left watching from the sidelines. The whole article is worth a read, but here are a few highlights.

Carter explains that this has ended up coming down to a contest between tech companies and drug companies. The tech companies are, relatively speaking, the good guys here. They’re tired of being subjected to lawsuits from patent trolls, and want some protection from Congress. Unfortunately, they seem to have lost out to the drug companies, who depend heavily on sales of patent-protected drugs to make their money. So the tech giants have given up on patent reform, and are focused instead on teaming with Pharma to demand a ludicrous tax holiday.

Meanwhile, Wall Street–in a great example of the narrow-minded selfishness of the capitalist class–managed to get a special exception dropped into the bill by their man, New York Senator Chuck Schumer. The exception would make it easier to invalidate “business method” patents–but only in the finance industry. This provision is thought to be targeted specifically at a company that holds patents on check processing, and has managed to extort a bunch of money out of the big banks as a result. This is indeed stupid, but rather than fight for a more sane system for everyone, Wall Street just wants to get special treatment and leave everyone else to fend for themselves.

What’s interesting is that this fight doesn’t really come down along partisan lines, although the Republicans are predictably the worst. Schumer is being opposed by a coalition that includes Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters, and a couple of Republicans, who all make the preposterous claim that invalidating business method patents in finance would “stifle innovation”. There is also an amusing story about patent-troll advocates whipping up a Tea Party astroturf campaign fronted by the likes of Phyllis Schlafly and Ed Meese.

Finally, the article also includes an amusing set piece that often appears in stories on the broken patent system: a parade of ridiculous patents. Carter recounts:

In recent years, patents have been approved for products including a wheeled flower pot (patent No. 7,908,942), the crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwich (patent No. 6,004,596), a decorative box that can be placed in a casket (No. 7,908,942) and an accounting scheme that helps people dodge taxes by moving stock options around (No. 6,567,790).

This got me wondering just how easy it is to find things like this. So I wrote a little script that generates a link to a random patent from among the last million patents issued. That covers those issued in the last five years or so. (Incidentally, this is about 1/8th of all the patents issued since 1836, which itself says something about how out of control the system is.)

The first random patent I found at least seems like a plausible invention, although I don’t really have the expertise to judge. Patent 7,121,819:

Auxiliary end heating devices on an elongated, heated hot melt distribution manifold body assist in maintaining uniform temperatures throughout all portions and passageways of the manifold body. The heating devices preferably take the form of thick film electrical resistive heaters of plate-like construction. The end heaters are on their own control circuit separate and apart from the circuit for other heaters for remaining portions of the manifold body. Special isolating slots are formed in lower corners of the manifold body between supporting standoffs and overhead melt passageways in the manifold body.

The next one I got, though, was Patent 7,127,671:

A method for publishing a customized publication including an article for a customer includes obtaining information from the customer including a topic for the article and the identity of a primary source for quotable information about the topic. The method also includes establishing and following a defined schedule for a three-step process for obtaining information about the topic prior to preparing and printing the publication.

It’s hard to make sense of exactly what this is supposed to be, but to me it sure looks like someone patented the idea of being hired to talk to sources and write an article for a single person. Reading the rest of the patent didn’t really make it look any better. I did like the section that defines such “technical terms” as “article”, “printing”, and “quotable information”.

Anyone reading this is welcome to try this out themselves. If my rudimentary PHP is written correctly, the following link is randomly generated, and should go to a different patent for everyone who reads this:

Your Random Patent, Patent Number 7374619.

Reloading the page will generate a new random link. If you find any particularly good patents, please leave them in the comments.


  1. Misaki says:

    August 4th, 2011 at 8:12 pm (#)

    Jobs would seem to be in scarce supply lately.

    How would increasing artificial scarcity in the right to use information for firms operating within a particular country and selling to a global market affect the artificial scarcity in jobs?

    Also see, artificial product scarcity

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