[permaculture] Exploding the myth of patents and copyright

dwoodard at becon.org dwoodard at becon.org
Wed Mar 7 17:29:56 EST 2012

In the early 19th century when American entrepreneurs were stealing
British innovations right and left, the U.S. had its own patent system
operating within the U.S. and seems to have been quite proud of it.

I encountered an interesting example of how the U.S. system actually
worked in the early 20th century:

Sir Harry Ricardo invented the L-head ("turbulent head") gasoline engine
in Britain around 1918, tried to patent it in the U.S. but was denied by
specious arguments as seems to have been customary at the time but
eventually obtained a U.S. patent through an American proxy. He charged
his British licensees less than 5% of the fuel saving alone. Around 1930
American manufacturers began infringing the patent and his American
associate felt unable to contest this in the U.S. against the large and
ruthless American car makers. He was successful in defending his patent in
a British court in 1933 against American imports. See "Memories and
Machines" by Sir Harry Ricardo, London, Constable, 1968.

At the same period, patent pools were a prominent feature of American

Legal provisions for compulsory licensing in cases of extortionate or
obstructive patent holders have long been a formal feature of patent law
but have not been much used in these times of governmental obsequiousness
to corporations.

Patents used to be an exchange of temporary protection for the inventor in
return for complete disclosure to the public domain, but I noticed over 30
years ago when examining a U.S. patent on a Swiss inventor's internal
combustion system, that lawyers have been allowed to make it as difficult
as possible to understand how an invention works while excluding anyone
else from using it; i.e. disclosure in the public interest is no longer a
function of the system, but the protection of the more powerful private
interests remains. In addition, governments have acquiesced in piratical
behaviour by large companies against patent holders with small resources. 
I suspect that innovation has suffered.

The growing inferiority of British engineering compared to German in the
late 19th century was partly due to the notoriously inferior state of
British technical and general education and the skinflint attitude of
British governments to it, despite the efforts of Queen Victoria's German
consort Albert.

Doug Woodard
St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada


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