Thursday, February 18, 2010


This is the second in a multi-part blog on the topic of INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY in the sciences.

"What is mine is mine. What is yours is negotiable."

- Nikita Khruschev, who is credited with using it to describe the American approach to arms control negotiations with the former U.S.S.R.

Though depriving society of a medical advance is not a crime, few holders of intellectual property resort to secrecy nowadays; they use patents, copyrights, and courtrooms to protect their interests. The modern patent is a property right (lasting 20 years) given by a government to an inventor of a method, or invention, or a novel item. Patent means "open," so named because the patent process opens the invention to scrutiny. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) publishes detailed descriptions of every awarded patent, and equivalent patent archives are available in other countries. The right to patent is sometimes referred to as the right to sue patent infringers. The idea is that patents are made public. Users of patented inventions must pay the patent holder a royalty. In return for a royalty, the patent holder refrains from taking legal action against the user.

When a patent or a copyright has expired, the work falls into the public domain and can be used freely. Many patent holders have been ruined by poor timing. Patent holders need to recoup their investment and earn all their profits within a twenty year window. When a patented invention requires twenty years or more to develop a market, the patent holder cannot profit from his work, unless he sells or licenses his patent during the patent's life. Likewise, patent holders may not profit if the practical implementation of their invention requires a second technological advance, that comes twenty years later.

A fine example of a patent issued before its time is the Lamarr/Antheil patent for Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum (U.S. patent 2,292,387, 1942), issued to Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil. Circa WWII, Hedy Lamarr was a glamorous actress, and George Antheil was a Hollywood music composer. The two came up with and idea for secretly passing messages by jumping a signal from frequency to frequency, giving it the appearance of noise to enemy interceptors. When the sender and the receiver change frequencies simultaneously, the message can be retrieved. Their patent preceded the technology required to implement the idea. Today, decades after the patent expired, spread spectrum radio uses the Lamarr/Antheil technique. In a symbolic gesture, Wi-LAN, a telecommunications firm, purchased the original patent as an historical document, for an undisclosed amount. This was the only income that Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil received from their patent.

© 2010 Jules Berman

key words: history of science , specified life blog , Jules J Berman PhD, MD
Science is not a collection of facts. Science is what facts teach us; what we can learn about our universe, and ourselves, by deductive thinking. From observations of the night sky, made without the aid of telescopes, we can deduce that the universe is expanding, that the universe is not infinitely old, and why black holes exist. Without resorting to experimentation or mathematical analysis, we can deduce that gravity is a curvature in space-time, that the particles that compose light have no mass, that there is a theoretical limit to the number of different elements in the universe, and that the earth is billions of years old. Likewise, simple observations on animals tell us much about the migration of continents, the evolutionary relationships among classes of animals, why the nuclei of cells contain our genetic material, why certain animals are long-lived, why the gestation period of humans is 9 months, and why some diseases are rare and other diseases are common. In “Armchair Science”, the reader is confronted with 129 scientific mysteries, in cosmology, particle physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine. Beginning with simple observations, step-by-step analyses guide the reader toward solutions that are sometimes startling, and always entertaining. “Armchair Science” is written for general readers who are curious about science, and who want to sharpen their deductive skills.