Today, let's patent our invention. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I'm at a banquet for the
200th Anniversary of our Patent and Copyright
Office. Henry Mancini is at the next table. John
Bardeen is across the room. He helped invent the
transistor. There's Gertrude Elion. She has a Nobel
Prize for creating the drugs that make organ
transplants possible. I see Stephen Sondheim,
Stevie Wonder, James Michener, and Leonard
Bernstein. There's Edwin Land, who gave us the
This is no Andy Warhol 15-minute hall of fame.
These people have shaped our world, and they've
stayed at it decade after decade. Still, I'm
troubled. How does their raw creativity relate to
the legal system that protects it. I ask the patent
lawyer next to me, "What qualifies an invention for
Him: "There're three things. First, it has
to be new."
Me: "What if it was known in
ancient China and forgotten?"
Him: "That'd be a special case. Then we
wouldn't count the invention.
But it also has to be useful."
Me: "Oh? Can you always see
Him: "That's a problem, so the court tries
to consider potential.
Anyway, there's a third absolute. It can't be
Me: "Yes, but the best design is
always the simplest one."
Him: "Well, the court tries to tell the
difference between simple and obvious.
A simple invention isn't always obvious."
Me: "But anything's obvious when
you understand it."
Him: "I see your problem. Tell you what:
suppose you try to write a better set of criteria!"
The man has nailed me. I realize that new, useful,
and nonobvious might be pretty good things for the
courts to think about while they struggle to
identify inventive worth. He smiles at the troubled
look on my face and says,
Him: "Patent people also have a set of
traditions that aren't part of the law at all --
things like 'You can't patent a law of nature.' or
'You can patent a device, but not an idea.' We make
exceptions to rules like that, all the time."
Up on the stage Ted Kennedy is giving Lloyd Conover
a medal for discovering tetracycline. Robert Noyce
is next. He coinvented the integrated circuit. What
would our lives be without integrated circuits and
antibiotics? I begin to catch on. The law is as
imperfect as invention itself. For two days I've
watched lawyers, inventors, and artists splitting
hairs -- trying to see where creativity ends and
its legal definition begins.
Creativity is a will-o-the-wisp. Trying to specify
it is like trying to catch a rainbow. The only
thing worse would be not trying to catch it at all.
In the end, our flawed law and our flawed
inventions have made our flawed world into a better
place. The proof of the pudding is all around me.
For this is a larger glory of the human mind than
I've ever seen in one place -- or ever hope to see
in one place again.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds