Soothsayers & American Ingenuity

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.” All patent attorneys know this curious statement, and that it was supposedly uttered in 1899 by Charles H. Duell. It probably would have gone unnoticed except for the fact that when he said it, this alleged soothsayer was the Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office. Most (but not all) patent attorneys also know that Mr. Duell likely never said this.

HAPPY NEW YEAR?

The dawn of the new year 2023 made us recall what is now considered to be this humorous misquote. We have a combined 80+ years of practice in the patent field. Much has changed since we started practicing. For example, in 1981 Bill Gates – another soothsayer – is attributed with this apocryphal quote,“640K ought to be enough for anybody,” supposedly in reference to IBM’s remarkable achievement of attaining a huge 640K bytes of memory in its newest personal computer. Today, a personal computer can have a random-access memory in the terabyte range.

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In 1798, way before these two statements were allegedly made, Thomas Malthus – yet another soothsayer – wrote “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” In his essay, Mr. Malthus predicted that population growth would outstrip the food supply and that any efforts to avoid this would fail. Thus, the word “Malthusianism” came to be, and has been extended to identify other demand/supply problems.

We note an apparent continuance of Malthusianism in present-day society, but it puzzles us. During our careers in patent law, we have seen many problems solved, so much so that our way of thinking goes like this: “If there is problem, there is a solution.” (Nitin Namdeo). Our engineering degrees have some effect on our way of thinking, as we were educated to solve problems. As patent attorneys we have often been privy to advancements that do not necessarily make the headlines, but are still very significant.

2023 AND BEYOND

With the start of 2023, we want to cheer up all Malthusians since we believe that the future will be great! Here are a few examples.

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With so many societies having increased their middle class, the demand for wood products has grown tremendously. Many fear that our forests will be depleted. To address this problem, MIT scientists have developed the ability to “grow” wood in a lab environment – not just to a specific density and stiffness but also to the shape of the final product itself! For example, a circular wooden tabletop can be grown eliminating the cellulosic waste that is generated to make a circular object from a square board.

The forever chemical (PFAS – think Teflon, Scotchguard, etc.) is ubiquitous, existing in our water supplies and the soil beneath us. There are solutions for extracting PFAS from water but its removal from soil is another matter. Again, scientists have found that certain plants have the ability to extract PFAS from the soil. Study (and further innovation) is still required on how to dispose or neutralize the extracted PFAS, and completely end the cycle of contamination.

We live in a time where great advancements are being made in finding effective treatments for cancer and discovering new methods for making vaccines. There is even talk of creating a universal vaccine that will be effective against a number of viruses.

PATENT PROTECTION, A SOLUTIONS TOOL

These types of advancements require substantial sums of money. Investors want assurances that their investments will bring significant returns for the associated risk. Patent protection is the primary tool for protecting such investments and provides an incentive for inventing solutions.

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The United States patent system has its origins in the U.S. Constitution. Madison and his cohorts addressed this in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8: “The Congress shall have Power … To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

American ingenuity indeed.

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