Tuesday, October 16, 2007

US Patent #7,280,897

Well, it ain't quite a Nobel Prize, but I just learned that US Patent #7,280,897 was awarded this month - with my name on it.

As I've been retired since 2001 you can see how slowly the wheels turn in the Patent Department of Lockheed Martin and the US Patent Office.

You can see it at: http://www.freepatentsonline.com/7280897.html.

It has to do with determining "intervisibility" between two points in a 3D space using a digital terrain map.

Although the method has many possible practical uses, the context for our work was to protect a helicopter flying at low altitude from threats. Given the locations, heights, and effective ranges of multiple threats, and a digital terrain map, the algorithm and method rapidly calculates the 3D cells that can and cannot be seen by those threats.

(A related algorithm and method, patented in 2001 and also with my name on it, calculates the 3D path a helicopter should fly between points "A" and "B" to minimize chances of being seen by threats while avoiding running into the terrain. See http://www.freepatentsonline.com/6259988.html)

Ira Glickstein


joel said...

Hi Ira, don't think I'm belittling your achievement in any way. I'm very skeptical of the patent system. I think we have strayed very far from the Founders charge to the Congress. Unlike most of the U.S. Constitution, the requirement to establish a patent system was expressed as a goal to, "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts..."

Many patents do not encourage those who would invest time and money on speculative research and development. Instead industry tends to patent everything in sight in order to inhibit competition and therefore progress. One is hesitant to engage in invention when there is a legal minefield staked out in the area. With respect -Joel

Ira Glickstein said...

Joel, as a guy with his name on four patents, and a fifth still wending its way, I beg to differ :^)

The whole area of "intellectual property" I think is way undervalued by many in the academic world. That is amazing to me because academics create much intellectual property!

There is also an "anti-corporate" bias among many in the academic and "liberal" world (I thought you were a bit of an exception). Some people think the patent system is OK if utilized by some poverty-stricken garage-shop inventor but evil when done by a large corporation.

It takes lots of invstment of time, money, and talent to come up with the new ideas that will propel technology forward. That is particularly true at the current advanced state of technology. The simple" things like safety pins and such are already invented and now in the public domain, their patents having run out.

Absent the patent system, why would any corporation make the large investments necessary? Why would they support large R&D departments. The large majority of patented inventions never lead to anything that recovers their R&D costs. It is the exceptional inventions that pay the freight for all the ordinary ones.

Without patent protection, most businesses would keep inventions secret for as long as possible to prevent others from ripping them off. That would, IMHO, not "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts..."

Of course, you are entitled to your own opinions and I respect you for them.

Ira Glickstein

joel said...

Ira said: There is also an "anti-corporate" bias among many in the academic and "liberal" world (I thought you were a bit of an exception). Some people think the patent system is OK if utilized by some poverty-stricken garage-shop inventor but evil when done by a large corporation.

Joel responds: Having done my share of creating and inventing, I'm stung by your accusation. : ) If the current patent system satisfied the goals of the Founders, I would be very much in favor of the process. However, as you know, no government intervention works 100% the way that we expect or intend. I've not seen any authoritative study (nor can I imagine one) that would tell us whether or not the current system as opposed to the one devised by Jefferson, would be more productive. One of the problems is enforcement. Wealthy corporations, for example, can afford to ignore the patent rights of individuals. Patent infringment is only a civil matter. It automatically favors those who can pay lawyers to delay proceeding forever or crush those with insufficient means. I would prefer a narrower definition of novelty in return for criminal prosecution. Patent infringment should rise at least to the level of assault or robbery and the State should prosecute.

Corporations themselves also have this problem in a foreign environment. American corporations often complain that wealthy Japanese corporations are notorius for patenting all around an American invention, so that the American corporation is forced to license their invention to the Japanese rather than exploit it themselves.

I wish that Thomas Jefferson were alive to give us his opinion of "intellectual property." The man who believed that an "idea" by it's very nature is not patentable, might have some interesting things to say. He believed that it is only the physical embodiment of an idea that merits a patent. This was a backlash against the "king's patent" that could bestow a monopoly upon anyone for anything. With the government often subsidizing contractors for R and D, it's hard to see patents in their present form as a valid tool of the free market. In terms of "Brave New World" we are swapping security for liberty. One company gets security in a narrow area, while the others lose the liberty to compete in that niche. All I'm saying is that we need a little better balance between security and liberty, and a better means of enforcement. When ASCAP wants to charge girl scouts for singing a song around a campfire, we have a hint that we may have gone too far in providing security for creators (or more likely their great-grandchildren). With respect -Joel

Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks Joel for continuing this discussion.

Your final sentence is IMHO quite revealing:

"...When ASCAP wants to charge girl scouts for singing a song around a campfire, we have a hint that we may have gone too far in providing security for creators ..."

It does seem excessive to me for ASCAP to go after a non-profit group that benefits children. If some idiot lawyer working for ASCAP did that (and there are lots of idiot lawyers) he or she was out of line.

On the other hand, if a profit-making business increases its profit margin by violating the terms of sale of a copyrighted work of art, by playing a recording to entertain customers, I think ASCAP has every right to go after them.

The actual loss to the song writer and band members and record distributor of one small restaurant playing their recording may be tiny and impossible to quantify, but there are lots of businesses that would do so absent ASCAP vigilance.

It seems to me, if I create and produce an easily-copied work of art, such as a song or video, I have every right to define the terms of sale. Just because you buy a legal copy of it, plainly labeled "for personal use only" you have no right to use it to increase profits for your restaurant and certainly no right to make illegal copies to sell or even give away.

If you don't like the terms of sale I impose, just don't buy my recording! There are plenty of songs that have passed into the public domain that you can use for your entertainment.

ASCAP is protecting copyrights which are somewhat different from patents, though both are intellectual property.

Although I am not impressed with the efficiency of government intervention (to say the least :^) the idea of personal property is absolutely basic to our form of government.

Jefferson, called the father of the patent system, never took out any patents on his inventions. (Many of his ingenious devices may be seen at Montecello.)

Jefferson wrote "...he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me." That is actually a very good analogy to what happens when someone copies a digital recording. The copy is as good as the original, and the original is not diminished at all.

However, looking at the larger picture, how did Jefferson's taper get lighted in the first place? Jefferson purchased and kept his matches dry. The person who needed the light did not. Therefore, Jefferson has every right to demand something in return for the light, even if it is only a "thank you" and an implied debt to return a favor in the future.

Similarly, if some individual copies my invention and makes a similar device for him- or herself, that does not diminish me.

On the other hand, if some big corporation rips off my invention and uses it to compete with me in the marketplace, that does diminish me and the corporation that purchased or sponsored my invention. If such rip-offs are allowed to occur, corporations will defund their R&D departments and obtain new technology ideas from others. That will ignite a vicious circle and diminish overall corporate R&D funding.

Of course, some R&D wil continue, but it will be kept secret. As you know, patents expire and go into the public domain, benefiting all.

Jefferson was at first opposed to the idea of patents as an unfair monopoly, but he warmed to them when, as first head of the US patent system, he dscovered their power to spur invention and related commerce. He personally approved all patents during his tenure, imposing high standards in granting them. He wrote that the patent system "had given spring to invention beyond my conception."

When he left office to become secretary of State, his successors were quite free-wheeling in issuance of patents. However, in 1836 the system was made more strict.

Bottom line: "We ain't in Kansas anymore." For the most part, the days of an individual inventing something like a cotton gin are over. Modern technology requires large corporations to support expensive R&D and to design, manufacture, market and distribute nbew products.

I agree with you the lawyers have exploited and distorted the current patent system. But, we can't go back to a system where a single person (like Jefferson) investigates and approves all patents. Any governmental system will be exploited. But that does not mean we should "throw the baby out with the bathwater". I know frompersonal experience the process of filing and getting approval are difficult and current standards are quite high.

Ira Glickstein