Wait! That’s My Idea!

There’s been a patent for podcasts since 1996, before the iPod, before the MP3 player or before the word “podcasts” even existed.

As reported on This American Life and Planet Money Jim Logan, who back in 1996 created a failed business sending audio tapes of magazine articles to people by mail, now wants a piece of the podcast action. The reason is a patent he filed claiming invention of the idea of a digital audio player that could download playlists (though this term did not exist yet) from the internet. He never could make a hardware device that worked, and has not been a podcaster or even listened to them after the technology did exist, yet he “invented” that technology.

This seems particularly funny to me both as a programmer but particularly as a science fiction writer. Inventing new technology is part of the job of a Sci-Fi writer, whether it’s simple “techno-babble”, or a fully realized device, and there’s been a long history of it.

Isaac Asimov (and many others) described the basic tenants of robotics and artificial intelligence. William Gibson imagined cyberspace and the internet. Many imagine fusion drives and transporters and even data pads. There are a myriad of tablets with patents out there in the world, but I still contend Michael Okuda would have claim on them all if he’d filed a patent (for those who don’t know Okuda and many others are responsible for many of the ship effects and tech designs on 90s Star Trek).

Take a more recent example: John Scalzi. In Old Man’s War Scalzi describes several new pieces of technology in varying degrees of detail: space elevators (also described by Arthur C. Clarke), the “skip” drive (his own solution to interstellar travel), and most importantly the genetically engineered bodies of the soldiers themselves. Scalzi even puts copyrights and trademarks after the various elements of the body (like super-oxygenated blood and tough skin).

But probably the most specifically described piece of technology is an array of sensors used to transfer the consciousness from one body to another. 20,000 sensors are jammed into the skull and form an intricate array of cross connections designed to record and transmit brain function and consciousness. A creative solution to Scalzi’s premise of 75 year old soldiers, but is it also a patent-able idea?

Sure, we’re nowhere near that level of technology now, but there are those who are trying to get there. Ray Kurzweil and other proponents of the “technological singularity” are looking for ways to do just this, transfer the consciousness (only in their case to robots).

Scalzi’s a pretty successful author (and a fellow Ohioan) but I bet he could rake in even more if he patented some of the technology he thinks up. Sure, there are probably requirements for documents, proposed schematics, materials costs, etc, to at least make it look like it was something that could be made. But a creative and determined mind could get it done.

This may seem ridiculous to a lot of you, and it seems to run counter to our basic idea of the patent system. Patents were created to protect the inventions of inventors, and more importantly, to foster the sharing of ideas. Now “patent trolls” stock up on patents as vague as a process of transferring audio across the internet, don’t have to build anything, and can make a lot of money suing (or threatening to sue) those who do create.

If that’s the way it’s going to be, then I think we as writers need to get our share*. There’s some applications of nano-tech in a novel I’ve been working on that would make for a great patent. And maybe if I’m lucky somebody will make it 10 years after I file it.

*Only half-kidding.


Filed under Trube On Tech

2 responses to “Wait! That’s My Idea!

  1. Chuck

    I’ve got an idea for the medical application of VR technology. Let’s talk …

  2. I heard that story, and have to agree with your take on it. Suing for patent infringement in the podcast example above doesn’t seem to fit the intent of patents. Or, if that is the way people want it to be, then anyone who ever thought of something first ought to be the person who makes all the money on it. Hm, this could mean that being a writer will be the next hot career. People will be dropping out of law school and medical school to write about potential new inventions, in the hope that someone will make it and they’ll get paid.

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