Great Moments in Tacit Knowledge, High-Energy Physics Division

From Alan Krisch’s 2010 account of research involving the (still-unresolved) anomalous behavior of tranversely polarized colliding protons:
After all this hardware was installed, an even larger problem was tuning the AGS. In 1988, when we accelerated polarized protons to 22 GeV, we needed 7 weeks of exclusive use of the AGS; this was difficult and expensive. Once a week, Nicholas Samios, Brookhaven’s Director, would visit the AGS Control Room to politely ask how long the tuning would
continue and to note that it was costing $1 Million a week. Moreover, it was soon clear that, except for Larry Ratner (then at Brookhaven) and me, no one could tune through these 45 resonances; thus, for some weeks, Larry and I worked 12-hourshifts 7-days each week. After 5 weeks Larry collapsed. While I was younger than Larry, I thought it unwise to try to work 24-hour shifts every day. Thus, I asked our Postdoc, Thomas Roser, who until then had worked mostly on polarized targets and scattering experiments, if he wanted to learn accelerator physics in a hands-on way for 12 hours every day. Apparently, he learned well, and now leads Brookhaven’s Collider-Accelerator Division.
Score a data point for the individualist view of organizational capability.

Creativity=recombination, Jedi edition

Where do great ideas come from? A popular notion among creativity experts is that recombination of preexisting ideas in a new context is the form that most if not all creativity takes. One more datum: Courtesy of my lovely wife, it seems that George Lucas may have been voguing, so to speak, when he came up with one of his most iconic images. 


Kill Patents, Save Innovation?

The patent system is “a real chaos”. Its faults were laid bare yesterday in an extensive New York Times article, which quickly reached the “most emailed list” (The Patent, Used as a Sword; and see Melissa Schilling’s review). But the same article also hedged by reminding us “patents are vitally important to protecting intellectual property”. But is intellectual property really essential for innovation? For an answer, look just a little past commercial software and you will see vast open collaboration without patents or copyright. Wikipedia, an open initiative, answers many of our questions. Open source software such as Linux and Android power most commercial websites and mobile devices, respectively. In myriad forums, mailing lists and online communities, users contribute reviews, provide solutions, and share tips with others. Science has been progressing by enlisting thousands of volunteers to classify celestial objects and decipher planetary images. Innovation without patents is real. Researchers estimate that open collaboration and user innovation bring more innovation than than the patented kind. Our legal and commercial system can do more to encourage it.


“Patents as Swords”? — More like Patents as Bombs

A great New York Times article this morning (link below) details ways in which the patent system gets used as both an offensive and defensive weapon, with billions of dollars of collateral damage to start-ups, consumers (see the “patent tax”), and innovation in general. The victim in the opening Vignette (Vlingo, a voice-recognition software start-up) might have been saved by a simple change in the rules: make the losers of patent lawsuits pay the legal costs of the winner. It turns out that it’s rather easy to kill small firms (or force them to sell to you) by launching a patent lawsuit against them that bleeds them dry with legal fees. You don’t have to win — you just have to force them to fight until they no longer have any money.  Vlingo ultimately won the patent lawsuit that had been filed by a much larger rival, but had to loot its own meager coffers to pay the legal fees of doing so. Vlingo slumped home with its patent lawsuit victory and shut its doors for good. If losers of such battles paid the legal fees of winners, such fights might both be less common, and less likely to be fatal.

The article also points out that software patents have proven particularly dangerous because they are prone to protecting vague claims like “a software algorithm for calculating online prices,” thereby granting the patent holder vast tracks of technological real estate. An interesting talk by Tilo Peters at the Strategic Management Society conference yesterday points to another useful tool for rationalizing some of this misuse of the patent system: Strategic disclosure. If, for example, you decided to publish a manifesto about all of the things you might do with software in the reasonable future (remember patents have a “usefulness” condition so you’re not allowed to claim something deemed non-feasible), you might be able to essentially proclaim that technological territory as unpatentable. It wouldn’t prevent competitors from developing in those areas, but it could keep them from patenting in those areas. In essence, it transforms a space in which property rights may be allocated into one in which property rights may not. I’ve left out some details but you get the idea.

Now it occurs to me that a fair amount of strategic disclosure in the smart phone space took place in the form of Star Trek episodes. I’m going to go look for references to prior art…

-Melissa Schilling

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/08/technology/patent-wars-among-tech-giants-can-stifle-competition.html?smid=pl-share


Alex Tabarrok’s Patent Policy napkin

Alex Tabarrok's Patent Policy napkin

Alex Tabarrok’s pictorial commentary on patent policy, drawn on a napkin, posits that the current patent system is somewhat too strong and thereby decreases innovation (the link to his original post is below). I have to say, however, that I don’t think patent strength is the problem. The problem is that the growth in patent applications over the last two decades has vastly exceeded the growth in resources available to the patent office, resulting in 1) long delays between patent application and granting (which can render patents completely pointless in fast moving industries), and 2) inadequate ability to examine the patent applications for novelty, usefulness and non-obviousness. This lowers the value of good patents (because they aren’t granted quick enough or may be fallaciously challenged) and increases the likelihood of bad patents being granted. As a result, for many individuals and firms, the expected net gains from manipulating the patent system for the purposes of extortion (hostage taking, patent trolling) now exceeds the expected net gains from using the patent system to actually innovate.

It’s difficult to assess how patent strength affects innovation without first making sure that patents are being granted and used the way the system had originally intended.

Alex Tabarrok’s original post can be found here:  http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2012/09/patent-theory-on-the-back-of-a-napkin.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+marginalrevolution%2Ffeed+%28Marginal+Revolution%29


Uber innovation: say goodbye to bricks and mortar taxi service

My colleague Josh Gans recently turned me on to UBER, a smartphone-based taxi service. I used it for the first time yesterday to get to the Toronto Airport. I’ll be surprised if this technology doesn’t eventually kill the taxi business as we know it. 

From the user’s perspective, you simply download an app and sign up for the service online. When you want a cab, you open the app. It shows you all the Uber vehicles around you on a google map. It tells you how many minutes it will take for one to get to you (in my case 8). You hit a button and, if you are so inclined, you can watch your car approaching on the map. A few minutes later, viola!, you receive a message telling you your cab has arrived. Our car was a spotless black limo-style sedan. The transaction is handled through your account with them via your credit card. No money changes hands with the driver (tip is included) and a detailed receipt is immediately emailed to you (great for expense reports). The cost in our case was identical to the standard fare + tip.

As far as I’m concerned, the experience dominated that of the status quo by a significant margin. It got me to thinking about the business model. As an investor, I would always be wary of any business 3 computer science grads from MIT could replicate in a basement. I can’t imagine there is anything in the Uber technology that creates a meaningful entry barrier. Moreover, unlike a Facebook type business, there don’t seem to be any network externalities working to the advantage of the first-mover. 

On the other hand, there are non-technology features of the business that are central to its success and, perhaps, not so easy to replicate. The most obvious is setting up a base of independent drivers. I was chatting with our driver and learned that substantial resources are devoted to vetting drivers and, once they are on board, regularly checking up on them to make sure the standard of service (car cleanliness and so on) remain high. That requires some infrastructure and know-how. 

Then, there are the reputation effects. Strong reputation is going to be a substantial benefit on the supply side – i.e., recruiting and maintaining good drivers. Plus, for the first time, a supplier of taxi services can build up not just a national but international retail brand. That’s a big deal. Apparently, Uber does not have to contend with local medallion laws — the cars are not marked and cannot be hailed from the street. This will help them a lot in expanding their business.

Still, the service only works for people with smartphones — a big limit to growth, at least for now. Also, it is hard to imagine that one or two competitors won’t take a run at them, especially if (as I suspect) this business really takes off. When that happens, who is going to appropriate the value? What is scarce in this situation? There appears to be no shortage of taxi drivers, though being able to find and maintain top-quality ones should confer some advantage. Also, my intuition is that the market will support two or three such businesses, not tens or hundreds. So, oligopoly prices under constrained capacity, at least for the high-end, high-quality version of the service, are likely to obtain.

Yet, the arrival of competition will surely send some additional value the consumer’s way in the form of lower prices. And this is not exactly a high-margin business to begin with. Therefore, at some point in the future, expect to see an established Uber lobbying local governments to regulate its segment of the business — waxing poetic on why it is in the public’s interest for cities to issue them some form of competition-inhibiting, medallion-like licenses of their own.


Entrepreneurship: Exploring (or Building) Adjacencies

Because I write and teach about innovation and strategy, friends and students often ask me to evaluate their new business ideas. A relatively large percentage of these business ideas are about a product the individual somehow identifies with, but in an area in which the individual has no work experience. The mythology of entrepreneurship is that it’s all about great ideas. The reality is that great ideas are a dime a dozen; successful entrepreneurship is much more closely linked to the ability to execute. How do people learn to execute? In general, it’s through having deep experience somewhere in the value chain. In other words, most successful entrepreneurship is accomplished through exploring (or building) something adjacent to where you already are or have been. If, for example, you have worked for an interior design firm for several years, and you travel to South Africa and see beautiful and unusual textiles you would like to be able to use in your practice, but no one is importing these textiles, you are in a much better position to create such an import business (and to know what it’s worth, and how to reach the target market) than another tourist who sees the beautiful textiles and wonders why the interior designer she has hired hasn’t shown her anything so unique.

Adjacent positions give you insight into the value chain of your target area (Who are the likely suppliers? What is their cost structure like? Who are the buyers? How are they used to being presented with goods to choose from? How big is the market? How are the logistics typically handled?). Adjacent positions can also help you identify valuable problems to solve (What aspects of the currently available products or business model are inefficient or irritating? What new innovation would exceed customer expectations, and how much more would they pay for it?). Perhaps most importantly, occupying an adjacent position means you are more likely to have valuable network contacts to lubricate your entry – for example, already having a relationship and credibility with distributors will usually have a big impact on the rate at which you can enter a market.

What if you love an idea, and are motivated to execute on it, but aren’t in an adjacent position? Build one. Consider working (or interning) for a firm that is either upstream or downstream in the value chain you will be entering. If you can offer up your effort at a low cost (preferably free) for at least a few hours a day, you can usually edge your way into just about any business. You could also consider working for someone who will ultimately be your competitor, but working for someone who will be your supplier or your customer is more likely to engender goodwill in the value chain, and help you accrue valuable contacts that you will use in your new business.

A case in point: My good friend, Rick Alden, founded a company called Skullcandy in 2003 that makes, primarily, headphones with an edgy, extreme sports aesthetic.  I was initially skeptical of his idea to enter headphones – to me it was a commoditized product category dominated by companies that operate in countries with significantly lower production costs. Rick, however, was deeply embedded in an adjacent industry – snowboarding. He had founded National Snowboarding Incorporated in the 1980s (which promoted the sport of snowboarding and offered lessons and competitions), and had designed and patented the first ever step-in snowboard boot and binding system. His brother Dave was a pro-snowboarder for Burton, and his father Paul Alden had been one of the founders of the North American Snowboard Association which helped to create guidelines for teaching snowboarding and developed the snowboarding World Cup. In short, Rick knew snowboarders – he knew their aesthetic, and he knew their habits. He knew most of the major snowboarding manufacturers, snowboard shops, and snowboard pro-riders. So when Rick launched Skullcandy, he was not only in a great position to evaluate what design features snowboarders would respond to, he was also able to get endorsements from the most famous snowboarders, and get on the shelves of the best snowboard shops. Once he had captured that market, the mass market (Best Buy, college bookstores, etc.) eagerly demanded product. Within two years Skullcandy had surpassed a million in sales, and by 201 1 Skullcandy’s sales had reached $231 million.

Had Rick started by developing a mass market product and approached Best Buy, it is unlikely the story would have turned out the same. It is equally unlikely that someone outside of the extreme sports industry could have replicated what Rick did. It was Rick’s adjacent position that gave him the knowledge, the contacts, and the credibility to enter and succeed in this market.


Crowd-sourcing Strategy Formulation

The current issue of McKinsey Quarterly features an interesting article on firms crowd-sourcing strategy formulation. This is another way that technology may shake up the strategy field (See also Mike’s discussion of the MBA bubble). The article describes examples in a variety of companies. Some, like Wikimedia and Redhat aren’t much of a surprise given their open innovation focus. However, we should probably take notice when more traditional companies (like 3M, HCL Technologies, and Rite-Solutions) use social media in this way.  For example, Rite-Solutions, a software provider for the US Navy, defense contractors and fire departments, created an internal market for strategic initiatives:

Would-be entrepreneurs at Rite-Solutions can launch “IPOs” by preparing an Expect-Us (rather than a prospectus)—a document that outlines the value creation potential of the new idea … Each new stock debuts at $10, and every employee gets $10,000 in play money to invest in the virtual idea market and thereby establish a personal intellectual portfolio Read the rest of this entry »


In the mail: The Wide Lens: A New Strategy for Innovation, by Ron Adner

Ron Adner is a colleague and long-time friend at Dartmouth’s Tuck School. This practitioner-oriented book is based upon his highly original research on innovation. More when I have had a chance to read and digest.


Higher Ed Tuition Bubble Update

The drumbeat continues: MIT launches free onine “fully automated” course. Aside from the fact that these innovations have major implications for the livelihoods of my friends and I, the economics are interesting per se.

With the elimination of capacity constraints on the distribution side, will brick-and-mortar education providers go the way of Blockbuster and Borders? The market does not like brick-and-morter. It is inefficient – costly and inconvenient.

What happens when one professor can serve the entire market? Will superstars play an even larger role in academia? Will there be a market for top researchers (scarce) or good teachers (less so)? The same question holds at the institution level. Will everyone get a degree (and work for) HBS one day?

UPDATE: Megan McArdle provides a more thoughtful essay on this event at the Atlantic.


MBA tuition bubble update: Thoughts on the brave new world of MBA education

Here it is: MIT Announces Platform for Free Online Courses

MIT is planning to launch an open platform for free online classes, complete with certification for those who demonstrate mastery of their topics.

The key part of that sentence is the, “complete with certification” bit. I have to admit, that came faster than even I expected. As many who read this site will know, MIT has been running the OpenCourseWare site for 10 years which, according to this article, boasts 2,100 courses and has been used by 100 million people. Offering actual courses with instructor interaction and evaluation is new.

In related news, my good friend Scott Page (Leonid Hurwicz Professor of Complex Systems at Michigan) is going to teach a free online course on modeling in January that presently has over 10,000 people signed up. I understand the free online course in Technology Entrepreneurship being offered in Jan. by Stanford’s Chuck Eesley beats that by a factor of 3+. A couple of days ago, I commented to a colleague, “Well, when they figure out how to add the certification function, we’re in trouble.”

It is now official: we’re in trouble. In case it is not obvious, let me explain why. This technology removes a significant number of capacity constraints. Now, basically every student interested in, e.g.,  technology entrepreneurship can sign up for a course offered by one of the best researchers and most outstanding teachers at one of the world’s the top business schools … and obtain evidence of having completed it satisfactorily. Admittedly, the certification is not, for the moment, what it needs to be. For example, my guess is that verification of who is actually being assessed is not airtight. However, this technology will certainly evolve. At that point, why does Stanford need an admissions policy? Just let everyone who wants to take a shot at learning enroll and, then, let the chips fall where they may. Let’s face it, admissions procedures are notoriously inaccurate anyway.

Here’s a prediction about what will happen in the near future. With places like Stanford and MIT racking up tens of thousands of students for their free online courses, top-tier wannabes will have to follow suit. I can pretty much guarantee that sometime soon your dean will figure out that having thousands of students enrolled in your free online courses will be a necessary component of marketing the bricks-and-mortar program. The fear will be that schools that don’t offer such programs won’t be taken seriously. And, ultimately, I think, that fear will be well-founded. Also, given the fact that every university enjoys government subsidies of some kind or another, there will be major political pressure to provide the social good of low-cost, open access courses.

Then, eventually, the marketing device will actually become the core educational product. What will that wold be like? Will we see Stanford or HBS or Chicago become the Amazon.com of MBA education? At p = 0 pricing, does everyone but a few super-programs go out of business? If so, would that have the perverse effect of turning university-based b-schools into pure, state-supported research institutions?

Folks have long argued whether MBA education is more about learning things versus providing aspiring business managers with a signaling device (see, e.g., Ezra Zuckerman’s comments to my related post over at orgtheory.net) . If I had to make a conjecture, at least for the medium-term, I believe that the online course technology is going to make the split between the signaling and actual learning functions more pronounced. The bricks-and-mortar programs will be all about signaling and the online courses will be mostly about learning content. In their refined role, the bricks-and-mortar MBA will continue to be pricey and even more about being accepted into one’s aspirational social network, much like the private mens clubs of the 18th and 19th centuries. At the same time, those who are interested in learning graduate-level business content will be able to do so at relatively little cost online (though, this too will serve as a signal in its own right and may even be a requirement to admission to the social club, er, full-time MBA program).

What happens in the long-run is less obvious.  After all, once the local, full-time MBA experience becomes pure signaling and social networking, it will face numerous substitutes. After all, there are lots of ways to burn money … and bona fide social clubs still exist. What then?

Finally, there is the question of what happens to the business research community? While I can easily imagine a superstars market evolving, in which the Scott Pages and Chuck Eesleys of the world educate a massive share of the market, I also see an educational role for those doing relevant, state-of-the-art research. Those of us who manage to establish international research reputations are, almost by definition, in possession of scarce, valuable knowledge.  Therefore, I am reasonably optimistic that most of us will continue to make a living doing some facsimile of our present jobs. Whether richer or leaner, I can’t say — the monetization model of the future is opaque.

 

 


Actually, small companies are better at innovation than large companies

Grant McCracken summarizes an Economist post that argues that big companies are better at innovation than small ones (well, he discusses both sides).

But theory says that small companies are actually the winners.

Economists have long wrestled with this, the “diseconomies,” problem: why do smaller organizations outperform large ones?  (Todd Zenger’s 1992 Management Sci piece summarizes this work nicely.)  Schumpeter indeed went both ways on this (Dick Langlois discusses the “two Schumpeters”-thesis a bit here).  But yes, large organizations seemingly have the resources, complementary assets, access to talent etc to outperform small organizations.  But small organizations still outperform large ones.

Large organizations have lots of problems (I’ll spare the references, for now).  They

  • mis-specify incentives,
  • suffer from problems of social loafing (free-rider problem),
  • engage in unnecessary  intervention, etc.

And, if large organizations had such an advantage, why not take this argument to the extreme and simply organize everything under one large firm?  That, of course, was one of Coase’s central questions.  Obviously the organization-market boundary matters and there are costs associated with hierarchy.

Sure – there are lots of contingencies, caveats and exceptions [insert example from Apple or 3M].  And, definitions matter [what exactly is "small" versus "large"].  But on the whole, the theory says small companies win in the innovation game.


Innocentive challenges

Innocentive is listing some new, cool challenges that relate to the social sciences and strategy:

Here are all their challenges.  And the external ones are also listed (DARPA, P&G, NASA, etc).

The Darpa Shredder Challenge was solved a few weeks ago by a small team in San Francisco, “All Your Shreds Are Below To U.S.”


VCs Innovate VC

An interesting development in venture financing is the creation of the “lean finance” model. This is an adaptation to winner-take-all markets; i.e., markets in which the best performer captures a massive share of the market. The funding model is to provide the minimum funding necessary to reach the point at which it becomes apparent who the winner is likely to be. Then, investors do a huge, “shovel-in” round of funding to seal it. On Friday, the Swedish commerce startup Klarna raised $155m following its May, 2010 round of only $9m.

Dropbox, a company whose product is well-known in academic circles, similarly raised $250m at the point it boasted 45m users, following a previous round of only $7m. An intriguing wrinkle is that different experts may have different opinions about  who the winner is going to be. Around the same time Dropbox raised its shovel-in round of funding, so did one of its primary competitors, Box.net, which raised $81m at the point it hit 7m users.  The solution to the puzzle may be that Box.net is viewed as the likely winner of enterprise segment (having turned down a $500m acquisition offer), while Dropbox is poised to take the personal user segment.


Technology Entrepreneurship by Chuck Eesley

Another class to add to the mix (here’s the previous post) — Chuck Eesley is teaching a free online Technology Entrepreneurship class.  I exchanged emails with Chuck and a mere 33,000 people have signed up for the course.  So far.


Reinventing discovery: the promise of open science

I’ve been skimming/reading through Michael Nielsen’s (pioneer in quantum computing) new (2012) book Reinventing discovery: the new era of networked science, Princeton University Press.  The book chronicles the various open science and open innovation initiatives from the past and present: Torvalds and Linux, Tim Gowers’ polymath project (see his post: is massively collaborative mathematics possible), the failed quantum wiki (qwiki) effort, Galaxy Zoo, collaborative fictionSloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS)Open Architecture Network, Foldit, SPIRESPaul Ginsbarg’s arXiv, the Public Library of Science (PLoS), of course Innocentive, etc, etc.

My quick take on the book – it is a nice review of the existing forms that open innovation and open science are taking.  I’ve read or followed most of the above projects over the years so the book doesn’t cover too much new territory from that perspective.  The language in the book isn’t too precise –e.g., “network” isn’t very specific (I suppose in this case it simply means internet, broadly, and more general openness). But then again, this isn’t really an academic book (lots of great footnotes though).  But the book is a great review of some of the existing efforts in open innovation and open science.

But beyond detailing the many instances of increased openness in science, the book touches more generally on the possibilities of “citizen science” (David Kirsch posted about citizen science on orgtheory.net, see here).  I think there are lots of interesting possibilities: funding, tapping into cognitive ‘surplus,’ perhaps gamification, and many other forms of collaboration.  And the book leaves off with some important problems for and questions about open science.  How do you get the incentives right for openness?  Who should be the gatekeepers?  What institutions are needed to support openness?  Etc.

Here’s the author speaking at Google a few weeks ago:


DOE makes $150m loan conditional on matching private funds – firm folds

Here is the WIRED link: EV Startup Aptera Motors Pulls the Plug: “The company that brought us a three-wheeled sperm-shaped two-wheeler shuts its doors after four years.” More here: The 190 MPG Aptera electric care that never was.

No kidding. My faith in government bureaucrats to make successful commercialization picks is, as we used to say in Nevada, lower than a snakes belly in a wagon rut. How many Department of Something-or-Other types do you think have the slightest idea of what Porter’s Five Forces are? And that’s a 30-year-old framework in strategy. Don’t even get me started on the open invitation to political corruption that these policies tend to create.

Those who worry about our dependence on foreign oil – a worry I share, by the way – often cite historic examples of government projects that successfully developed new technologies that would never have seen the light of day (or, at best, would have seen it decades later) had the country relied on the private sector to do it.  The Manhattan Project to develop the nuclear bomb during WWII is a favorite citation.

The problem we are seeing today is that the government is presently throwing money at firms claiming they can commercialize green technologies that, in reality, have not yet passed the basic development stage. You can’t get private investors to ante up when taxpayers are shouldering half the risk? That’s a very strong signal that those who spend their lives evaluating such things believe your technology is not ready for prime time. There is a big difference between government involvement in basic technology and government involvement in its commercialization.

Now, if folks are really serious about a Manhattan Project-style effort to, say, develop an efficient electric car, then let’s do it right! Get the smartest scientists from the top schools, fence them in at a top-secret facility in the middle of some desert, and don’t let them out until they succeed. I think that might work. And, I’m pretty sure the scientists’ home institutions would go for it.

Then, turn the technology over to the VCs to compete in the commercialization stage.

 


#OWS 2011 = Paris Commune 1789

A shot across the bow in the New Criterion by James Panero:

For those of us who watch from the sidelines, the Occupy Wall Street movement may appear sympathetic to our own concerns. At the very least, it seems to offer a safety valve for others to vent their frustrations. Yet the history of idealistic occupations suggests this will also end poorly, with a polarized public and the movement collapsing in ruin.

Like the Commune, Occupy Wall Street is about the perfection of itself rather than the reform of others. This is a reason that the Occupationists differ from other protesters who go home at the end of a long march. For the Occupation, the tents do not come down until perfection is attained or destroyed.

The heart of OWS is therefore in its internal mechanics, especially its strictly “non-hierarchical” code of conduct. The manifestations of this code might appear foolish, but they emerge from a formula meant to challenge if not supplant our current system of government with the Occupation’s own forms of egalitarian command and control, a formula that grOWS ever more doctrinaire and insular for those who practice it. Many of these devices are still being developed in the “General Assemblies” of Occupationist cells. OWS already employs several to limit open speech, especially when the purity of the Occupation is confronted by the impurities of our existing laws and precedent.

 

From my perspective the reason why the “free/open source” movement succeeded is because they stopped protesting and started coding – i.e. they focused on developing solutions.  Richard Stallman created two brilliant hacks – the GPL – an IP license that allowed sharing & GCC – the compiler.  Solutions not protest!


Patent inflation

The most recent issue of Yale Law Journal has a nice piece by Jonathan Masur on patent inflation (here’s the pdf).  There’s no question the system is broken: patent thickets are a problem, anticommons are an issue, and some patents are plain ridiculous.

The piece is worth reading – it covers Bilki’s attempt to patent hedging risk, the problem of assessing usefulness and novelty, the scope of what is patentable, the problem of patenting process and software, etc.

Here’s the abstract:

For more than two decades, the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) and the Federal Circuit have exercised nearly complete institutional control over the patent system. Yet in recent years their stewardship has been widely criticized, largely on the basis of two particular failings. First, the PTO grants significant numbers of invalid patents, patents that impose substantial costs on innovative firms. And second, over time the Federal Circuit has steadily loosened the rules governing patentability, allowing ever more patents over a greater range of inventions. This Article argues that both of these modern trends may be attributable in whole or in part to the asymmetric institutional relationship between the PTO and the Federal Circuit. If a patent applicant is denied a patent by the PTO, she can appeal that denial to the Federal Circuit. However, if the PTO grants the patent, no other party has the right to appeal. Accordingly, the PTO can avoid appeals and reversals, both of which are costly in monetary and reputational terms, simply by granting any patent that the Federal Circuit might plausibly allow. Because the PTO will grant nearly any plausible patent, the vast majority of rejected applications that are appealed to the Federal Circuit will concern boundary-pushing inventions that are unpatentable under current law. Occasionally, a particularly patent-friendly panel of Federal Circuit judges will elect to reverse the PTO and grant a patent that the Agency has denied. The Federal Circuit’s decision will create a new, inflationary precedent. The boundaries of patentability will expand slightly, as this new precedent exerts influence on the other circuit judges. And as the Federal Circuit’s conception of what may be patented expands, the PTO will similarly inflate its own standards in order to maintain an adequate margin for error and avoid denying a patent that the Federal Circuit is likely to grant on appeal. Patent law will thus be subject to a natural inflationary pressure.


A patent for a strategy framework?!

I love that there are patents like this – an IBM patent for “an integrated framework for analyzing a firm in terms of its resources, capabilities and strategic positions, providing a Strategic Capability Network composed of nodes signifying these resources, capabilities and strategic positions, together with relationships between these nodes.”

Here are the full details on US patent # 6,249,768 at google patents.  Read through the patent document – it is inclusive of citations to work in SMJ and other journals.  And, this particular ‘strategy’ patent has also been referenced by many other patents.

And, here are other patents that cite SMJ. Here’s one for an “organizational innovation enhancement technique.”


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