On patents

December 12, 2013

A long drive down from Seattle to Portland today and in bad weather which made it more of an endurance test than anything else.   I'm taking part in the third Supporting Agile Adoption workshop tomorrow and I think I, along with Bjarte Bogsnes of Beyond Budgeting fame have been invited to provide a wider perspective.  More on that as the event unfolds over the weekend.   Before leaving I had a meeting with out patent lawyer in Seattle.   We have a couple of new ideas, or possibly developments of our existing patents and this sort of stuff is better sorted out face to face.

Having gone through the patent process three times in my life, twice with IBM and once as Cognitive Edge I'm starting to get used to the arcane principles on which patents are based.  I won't bore you with the details but it is esoteric to say the least and you need professional assistance to get the conceptualisation and drafting right.   The meeting over I have a difficult task over the Christmas break that will involve locking myself away for a day to get my head around it.

Driving down to Portland as sunshine turned to overcast skies and then rain I reflected on the whole issue which presents some real dilemmas for society.   I don't claim to have a solution, but I do have some observations:

  1. There needs to be some sort of legal protection for inventors, something that allows years of toil to be rewarded.  We don't want a position by which individuals or small groups create something, then larger organisations use financial muscle to exploit the idea without any reward to the inventor.
  2. If that is to be the case then we need some form of limited time protection that does not cost tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to put into place (and yes it does cost that).  We also need simple rules that an inventor can understand and comply with.
  3. We also need something which is international in nature; event when you have a patent the cost of registering in other countries is prohibitive.
  4. We don't want to inhibit the exploitation of ideas.  The originators of the process to create Penicillin in commercial quantities did not want to patent the idea as they wanted it free for all, but then one member of the team created a patent and the rest is history.  White Space Patenting in which a commercial firm monitors the patents of their competitors then creates patents in the areas around to prevent the development of an idea, seems wrong to me.
  5. The abuse of software patents and the battles around them is an international issue at the moment as it is preventing progress.  The danger is that in the battle between the big giants the small inventor is forgotten.

Now I am not sure what the solution is to all of that, and I doubt anything will change.  So speed of exploitation of an idea is probably the best protection for any small company.  The problem is that a free for all is unconstrained and results in rewards for the exploiters not the creators.  The current patent system is so constrained that invention is difficult or impossible to protect.  Complexity would argue for lighter constraints.   

Personally, if I had the power, I would put a simple international agreement in place that allows people to register an idea or plans that satisfy certain criteria – one current criterial works here, namely you have to describe something to the level of detail that someone else could copy it.  Then we need progressive protection which falls if you don't do anything with the idea over a reasonable timescale.  It needs to be a lot simpler.

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About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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