Sunday, December 04, 2011

Invention as a language paradox.

Picture courtesy Gizmodo

While working on lectures for the Patent Paradox, I finally figured out (maybe) why it is so difficult to understand the true nature of inventive process.

The language itself does not allow us an easy way to express the idea that the novel device you are holding in your hand is an amalgamation of inventions. That is, you can naturally say "iPhone is an invention", despite a well-documented fact that Steve Jobs and his team put together iPhone from a large number of ideas, rejecting some and accepting others. The process of selecting and implementing these inventions involved thousands of people and took several years. (see Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson.)

Nevertheless, a true statement like "iPhone is inventions" is neither grammatically nor syntactically correct. Moreover, if you make this simple true statement in public you will sound plain stupid. "The lightbulb is inventions" also sounds stupid and, despite all the facts, it is easy to say and believe that "Edison invented the lightbulb."

The same goes for statements like "Invention of Agriculture", or "Tim Berners-Lee invented the world-wide-web", etc. As David Kahneman showed, we tend believe what feels intuitively right, not what is right. (System 1 vs System 2.)

Back to The Patent Paradox. To explain to people why we have hundreds of patents covering iPhone-like devices and why we have patent wars between Apple, Samsung, Motorola, Nokia and others, I cannot simply say "Smartphone is inventions, therefore it is covered by hundreds and thousands of patents." No, to convey this simple true thought, I have to show a bunch of examples, explain that "unimportant" patents are as important as the "important" ones, etc.

It's remarkable that our legal system is also stuck in the wrong language paradigm and cannot deal with the fact that a successful device "is inventions." As a result, juries award multimillion dollar settlements for one patent out of hundreds applicable.

Background reading:
1. Walter Isaacson. Steve Jobs.
2. H.C.Anawalt. Idea Rights.
3. D.Kahneman. Thinking Fast and Slow. - his lunchtalk I posted a week or so ago is also very good.
4. John Searle. Philosophy of Language. Phil 133, UC Berkeley podcast. Fall '11.
5. Bertrand Russel. Problems in Philosophy.

tags: philosophy, patent, control, information

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