Fighting Over Authorship of
What Makes Our Lives Better
As Mussolini’s son-in-law used to say, failure is an orphan, but victory, let us count how many fathers show up. Or something to that effect. Thus the Internet has seen its share of paternity suits, as any invention with a powerful role in contemporary life would, such as email and the toilet paper. The thing is, these are hardly the type of inventions that spring up out of a single idea.
The latest of this saga on insubstantiated progenitors unwittingly started by, of all people, Al Gore, are two men: a Chicago biologist who claims that he created and patented a form of ‘interactive Web’ in 1993; and a MIT lecturer, who says he can prove he invented the world’s first electronic email system while still a teenager in the 1970s.
Both claims are being heavily contested, as expected given the potential astronomic amount of cash involved. Fortunately, for every disputed argument, there are hundreds of proven inventions that do make our lives better. A lot of them are not nearly as flashy, but are still vital, as the James Dyson Award shows annually. Or are developed out of necessity, as the space exploration demonstrates.
The field of invention, albeit prone to produce stellar nuts, fakes, plain demented or geniuses, sometimes even combining them all into a single individual, is way more exciting than courtroom cases and useless patents, and we’re not talking about industrial espionage here. In fact, throughout the years, many a inventor paid the price of his or her amazing idea with their own lives.
But while even ideas with a proven track record, such as the very wheel, are now being questioned (‘Why it took them so long to invent it?, asks a Princeton professor) it’d be unfair from us not to weight in on an invention awaiting approval by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, one that would revolutionize the way we communicate with our pets: the phone for lonely cats, dogs and humans.
SELLING THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE
It’s not too far-fetched to compare a phony authorship claim over a popular invention to the old fashioned con of selling landmark monuments to a gullible party. After all, this has been a buyers beware world since probably, well, the invention of the wheel, and due diligence and double-checking is a requirement for anyone who calls himself an adult.
On the other hand, when it comes to inventions with a practical and immediate need and application, things can get murky, and powerful interests may indeed interfere with the due, and moral process, of establishing authorship.
The proverbial case of the inventor who dies penniless, while his or her creation lives one and makes money to a lot of people remains a truthful cautionary tale. But it’s usually because the author or authors lack either the confidence that their invention has in fact a value, or because no one has any business acuity to navigate the world of patents and claims.
But there must be a percentage of cases, which we probably never hear about, when the author is indeed swindled out of the profits of his labor and no amount of lawsuits and newspaper stories seem to be able to restore justice and reinstate the legitimacy of his claim. You don’t know, but right at this moment, you may be staring at a household object, whose origin can be traced to just such a case.
But alas, haven’t your mamma told you that there were be days like these? Unlike popular belief, Steve Jobs did not invented the Macintosh computer, or most of the innovative technologies that make Apple computers and gadgets so effective. Sorry, mourners. Still, without him, the company he created and led wouldn’t be so far ahead of its competitors.
Jobs died a wealthy man for being an inspirer, not an inventor, even though he may have been instrumental in many features of the Apple, by just pushing his team of developers to go further and faster.
Perhaps, if anthropology professor David Anthony, the man who ‘blames’ carpentry for delaying the invention of the wheel, were there, before the year 4000 B.C.E., cast copper chisels and gouges would have become more common earlier, helping the invention to be rolled out a bit sooner. So much for history quarterbacking, though.
THE WEB PATERNITY SUITS
By most accounts, Tim Berners-Lee, or TimBL, is officially recognized as the inventor of the World Wide Web. He had help, of course, but it was after his pioneer research that, on 25 December 1990, the first well documented and successful communication attempt between a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) client and server via the Internet was accomplished.
Both Michael Doyle, the biologist, and Shiva Ayyadurai, the MIT scientist, may beg to differ, albeit for different reasons. Doyle chose a Tyler, Texas, federal courthouse to lay his claim over an interactive program he created at the UC’s San Francisco campus in the 1990s, which allowed doctors to view embryos over the nascent WWW.
Ayyadurai’s case seems a bit flimsier, as he didn’t invent email, but “EMAIL,” an electronic mail system implemented at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in Newark, New Jersey. His critics say he’s trying to cash in the widely used generic name, which means a technology created much before his time at the university, based on the record of the similar but much more limited system he created.
Ray Tomlinson is recognized for having sent the first text letter between two computers on ARPANET in ’71—y’know, an email and for the @ sign. His research and its ramifications are also well documented in what’s known in the industry as the RFC 733, a 1977 document of what became the Internet itself, a year before Ayyadurai’s EMAIL project.
As for Doyle’s case, it became big enough to attract lawyers from Yahoo, Amazon, Google and YouTube, among others, including TimBL himself, who has testified about the dangers patents represent to the Internet as we know it. The proceedings will continue but if Doyle’s chances are slim, nothing indicates that others won’t follow suit.
The fight over the paternity of this particular victory is far from over.
TURNING AIR INTO WATER
Perhaps what prevents the world of inventions from become a space of lawyers, litigation and stolen patents is student awards such as the one created by British inventor James Dyson, the one of the vacuum fame. Focused on design and engineering students from all over the world, it aims at rewarding creative innovation and practical solutions to some of our biggest challenges as a society.
Last year’s winner among 500 entries, for instance, exemplifies all that’s great about the creative genius of mankind: a university student, Edward Linacre, who created an irrigation device that turns air into water and delivers it directly to plants’ roots. He and his Melbourne school will receive each $14,000, but just imagine how many millions may benefit from their efforts?
And, showing that not all high-tech should be digital, but can help solving real-world problems, other entries included an air massager, for people with arthritis; a low cost water pump for those with difficulty accessing clean water; a bionic arm for amputees to avoid invasive muscle re-innervation surgery and a smart cane for the visually impaired.
THEY CAME FROM SPACE
Not really, but the exploration of what’s beyond the Earth’s atmosphere has had its unfair share of critics, whose main excuse is their own failure to see its potential to help solve problems down on the ground. Like, does your baby eats formula with dietary supplements? Thank NASA for developing it for feeding astronauts first.
A small device, created by Dr. Michael DeBakey for pumping fuel for the Space Shuttle, has been adapted to become the most reliable and fuel-efficient heart pump in the market today. A hand-held cutter, which has replaced the old Jaws of Life for helping victims out of wrecks, was originally designed to safely separate the shuttle from the highly-explosive solid rocket boosters.
Want more? There’s VISAR (Video Image Stabilization and Registration), a software that’s capable of turning grainy nighttime images into sharp footage, developed by NASA to film the shuttle launches. Plus, image processing for firefighters, biodegradable commercial lubricants, and insulation for automobiles used by Nascar drivers.
These are all what NASA calls “spinoffs,” ideas developed out of necessity for a particular challenge, but that became commercial products later. Many people are familiar too with Tang, Teflon and Velcro, which weren’t actually designed for or by NASA at all, but got to fly onboard its spacecrafts before finding their way to your closet and kitchen cabinet.
In the meantime, your smartphone is way smarter than the commands that guided 30 years of flights of the Space Shuttle, and today you wouldn’t dare driving a car controlled by the computer that placed Neil Armstrong on the moon. We’re sure that a new sense of purpose, a new space exploration era would correct that and speed up technological advances like no other human enterprise.
OWNERS OF LONELY PETS
In this world of what ifs and it’d have been that, had not been for, there are many things that remain constant. One is our relentless drive to cut corners and, whenever there’s a possibility of not getting caught, take advantage of someone else’s labor. The other, and we must say, fortunately for all species, is our highly developed affection for our pets.
Many an office worker spends time, not thinking about the tasks ahead, god forbid, or about sex with the secretary, but how lonely must be feeling Fido right about now. Some actually activate Webcams at home, so to remotely monitor them, and often even speak to them, which we should not speculate how it may sound to those animals, listening to that out of the blue familiar but disembodied voice.
Fear not, though, for inventors are pet owners too, or rather, may be owned by a pet or two too. That’s probably why Mark W. Kroll, of Crystal Bay, Minnesota, created the Domestic Animal Telephone, an invention that may not reach the market any time soon, but that we must confess, we’re already enormously fond of.
Deceptively simple, to the point of poising to many that age-old question, how come I haven’t thought about that myself?, all it requires is that the “mammal” learns how to depress the “paw switch” to answer the phone within ten rings. In the documentation, Kroll says that the animal can even “drool on the thing,” as the phone will include sections for pet licking or chewing.
As we said, the patent on this one is pending, which may be just as well. An recession-proof industry that as a whole has grown 26 percent in the U.S. between 2006 and 2010, and on which Americans have spent an estimated $47.7 billion of their hard-earned currency only in 2010 doesn’t really need any extra encouragement.
But as we also said, we kind of like it. Regardless of what evils of cruelty some pets are submitted to, the great majority of humans do love their animals, and one just wishes that that could be extrapolated to empathy towards fellows of their own species, and even other animals, specially those considered ‘food.’
In fact, as we write this, it makes us think about Boconcini, and Margareta, and Lincoln, and Guinho, and Magnífico, and Urpi and so many others that raised the quality of our personal lives several notches, at one point or another. We couldn’t imagine having come this far without their affection and what they actually added to our existence.
So, while we must live with the inevitable inventions that one day may do us all in, such as the Nukes and even the chemical manipulation that’s nominally researched to cure diseases, but that has also the potential to kill us all, we must cheer up those that seem silly but have a lot of humanity in them. Even if they never reach the market. Even if someone else steals the idea and claims that they, truly, created the Internet.