I would like to add to Seth Shulman’s column “The Morphing Patent Problem” (TR November 2001) that commercial and institutional patent applications are written in as broad a fashion as possible because there are no solid ground rules for execution. Why not? There’s no penalty for what might be described as “overdraft.” The fault lies not in the application but in the review process. There aren’t that many people in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office who are qualified to understand the consequences of their actions. I’m not suggesting that these public servants are incompetent. They’re simply overworked and outgunned by highly paid corporate or institutional legal beagles. So why should we be surprised by the results?
Seth Shulman responds:
Indeed, the fundamental asymmetry of the patent system is a big piece of the problem. There is no penalty for drawing up an absurdly broad patent application and hoping the patent examiners won’t notice. Then, if the patent office does turn down some of your claims, there is nothing to stop you from relentlessly returning in an iterative process to wear the examiners down. This happens often and, as with the stem cell case, the stakes can be enormous. Maybe an “overdraft” penalty is worth considering. Or perhaps applicants could be frightened into writing their patents with a more reasonable scope by the threat of independent audits of the patent review process. Panels of independent experts in various subspecialties could regularly review the process in their fields and be given the power to rescind frivolous or overly broad patents and even fine those who abuse the system.
Mark Frauenfelder correctly points out many of the obstacles to developing a “Semantic Web” as envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee (“A Smarter Web,” TR November 2001). However, without the pioneering work of Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who developed the first graphical browsers in the early 1990s, Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web would have remained a limited academic tool, useful only to a few computer-savvy folks. What is needed now for a “smarter” Web to become reality is for people like Andreessen and Bina to develop user interfaces that make the Semantic Web visible, pointable and clickable. Then large numbers of people will be able to explore this new Web and learn how to use it at their own pace.
Michael Hawley is correct that more needs to be done to bring technology to the developing world through the coordination of volunteers, and that following a Peace Corps model is one way to go (“A Technology Corps,” TR November 2001). I was surprised, however, that his column did not mention the work of Seattle-based Digital Partners, one of the first organizations launched to bridge the digital divide. This nonprofit entity comprises a large number of information technology entrepreneurs who volunteer their time and donate money to support projects that are bringing the benefits of technology to the poor. We work with several of the organizations Hawley mentions, including the MIT Media Laboratory in India and Africa.
John Benditt’s editorial mourning the loss of technology pundit Michael Dertouzos (“MIT in Mourning,” TR November 2001) was touching. A long time ago, I had the privilege of meeting Professor Dertouzos. Though our encounter was brief, it had a tremendous impact on my life. At the time, I was working on a new way to make analytical and diagnostic tools for use in drug development. What I cherished most about our meeting was Dertouzos’s ability to inspire and challenge me in trying out my new idea, which eventually brought me three patents, a successful company supplying lab tools for life-science research and early retirement. While I had no substantial experience in any of the “Three Queens” (information technology, biotechnology and nanotechnology), Dertouzos’s wisdom made all the difference.
I would like to offer an annual award in Dertouzos’s name for students who can demonstrate the use of the Three Queens philosophy in developing a product or service that would have an impact on technology as a whole. Perhaps Technology Review could help set up and manage the contest.
Roy L. Manns
Marshfield Hills, MA