Perl_geek, I think when the cost (other) of entry is high and everyone is the same size there is little value in patents, and your example supports that theory, but there are times when a small company comes up with a uniquely new way of doing things and needs years to bring it to fruition while a larger company can do it faster. In this case it may be good to have patents (good for the holder/inventor that is).
That said I think patents don't benefit the population at large because whether there's patents or not new ideas will always be dreamed up and adopted if they're cost effective or particularly useful, where as all patents do is increase the cost as they are a monopoly. So great if you're the holder with the money to fight it and bad for everyone else.
There are many cases where people are dying because of patents and I'm not sure how the holder/inventor can live with himself.
I worked for a company that invented the idea of using an actuated optical fibre as a pin hole camera and this idea has revolutionised confocal microscopy, and I have to say without the patent the company probably wouldn't have received the funding to bring it to fruition but as far as the world at large goes we would have all been better off with countless uses for it as countless ideas and experiments brought lower cost and more widespread adoption.
This begs the question of what the funding model might be for an idea that needs serious money with perhaps insufficient return for investors. My guess is it would go back to government funding
Anyhow, what ever we do there are winners and losers and to my mind we are better pusueing the method that brings reward for the most rather than the least.
I read a news opinion once where it said that productivity was highest in those developed countries that had the least court activity. An inverse relationship was what they said.
Battery technology certainly played into how Microsoft redesigned the tablet that we built. We originally built ours with flash storage, a low-power CPU (Hitachi SH series), and an emphasis on web browsing rather than local programs. Granted, it was horribly expensive at the time, but it certainly was more power-efficient than what Microsoft did in shoehorning a full PC into that form factor. What Xerox saw at the time and Microsoft missed was that you could do useful things with a relatively thin client.
Although I have several patents with my name on them, they aren'r really all that useful. Instead, they are used along with a pool of patents to bash any company over the head who might want to accuse my company of infringement. Basically, it let's you settle out of court. That culture provides little incentive for true innovation. Money needs to be the incentive.
Most companies (like mine) make money by doing things better, sooner, cheaper, etc. Some good marketing always helps :-).
One of the biggest advantages is the 'sooner' part. That's why I think innovation that makes it to the market first has a big advantage. That advantage usually means money to the innovators - as it should. That's why open source doesn't make a lot of sense to me.
Innovate in secret and let everyone else copy and follow. The consumer wins. Companies make money and employ more people. Lawyers lose.
Seems like a pretty good deal if you aren't a lawyer.
The history of James Watt's patent on the steam-engine condensor is worth studying. His firm made more money after his patent expired than they did when it was in effect. When somebody else combined his condensor with a a better mechanical design, their experience made them the best people to implement the improved machine, (which was useful in more areas) . http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blwattsboulton.htm
Tablet computers are a particularly apt example. Back in the 90's we built a prototype tablet under contract to a spinout from Xerox. Bill Gates liked the result so much that Microsoft bought up the rights and tried to turn it into a standard form factor for a traditional Wintel computer. That never really did fly, so the idea died until Google and Apple revived it and made a real product category out of it. Yet another idea that started out at Xerox and was successfully productized by Apple.
It is true that ideas are not unique. Many people thought of the tablet computer. The companies who figured out how to make them easy to use, cheap, and run a long time on batteries were the ones who found success. Guess who they were? The ones with lots of money to invest in software, hardware, and manufacturing technology, and the ones with a ton of patents.
Were the patents necessary? Probably not. Apple sure made a lot of money by enforcing their patents, however.
I like the idea of taking really good ideas to market by using trade secrets. When you finally get out of stealth mode, you have a working product that is (hopefully) valuable to consumers and is sufficently hard to reverse engineer that you will have a head start on the next generation version of your great idea.
People should be rewarded for their great ideas by making as much money as the market is willing to fork over. With open source hardware, everybody and their mother will be able to make the same thing - so the one with the most money to make it and market it will win. Do I want to work 80 hours a week for 2+ years only to have somebody else make all the money I deserve for it? I'd rather go backpacking.
Maybe open source works for undersea robots with no real market value, but not something that is useful for the masses.