This is a fascinating feature on the guy who invented the intermittent windscreen wiper and sparked decades of patent lawsuits against major motoring companies. It delves into the murky depths of patent infringement and what does and doesn’t constitute intellectual property in the United States (and globally).
Copyright and Intellectual Property stuff gets really murky. And I think is a product of selfishness. On both the part of the infringer and the producer.
“In the last decade or so, the boundaries of what is patentable have expanded. In 1972, a molecular engineer named Ananda Chakrabarty applied for a patent on a microbe he had engineered that would help break down crude oil. The Patent Office rejected his application, citing a clause in the patent code which says that life forms are not patentable. Chakrabarty appealed, and in 1980 the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, 5-4, creating a brand-new sector of intellectual property: life. Last February, the National Institutes of Health applied for thousands of patents on human genes. The prospect that the United States government may soon own the gene that causes, say, green eyes has naturally created a certain amount of controversy, with some people predicting a kind of land grab at the cellular level–the Japanese patenting brown eyes, Swedes patenting blond hair, Italians patenting Roman noses.”
The story of Ford’s (and plenty of other motor companies’) infringements of Robert Kearns’ windscreen wiper patent is a sad one. He lost his marriage and possibly his sanity in the singleminded pursuit of justice. And what Ford did was wrong.
“Roger Shipman, a Ford supervisor, announced to Kearns that he had “won the wiper competition.” He told Kearns that his wiper would be used on the 1969 Mercury line. Kearns was given the prototype of a windshield-wiper motor to commemorate the occasion. The other engineers welcomed him aboard Ford’s wiper team. Then, according to Kearns, Shipman asked him to show his wiper control to the rest of the team. Wipers were a safety item, Shipman explained, and the law required disclosure of all the engineering before Ford could give Kearns a contract. This sounded reasonable to Kearns, so he explained to the Ford engineers exactly how his intermittent wiper worked.
About five months later, Kearns was dismissed. He was told that Ford did not want his wiper system after all–that the other engineers had designed their own. Kearns remembers that one of the engineers taunted him as he was leaving. “
But that was possibly the result of a systemic flaw in Ford’s thinking – from the founder himself.
“Henry Ford loathed patents. One of Ford’s lawyers once boasted, “There is no power on earth, outside of the Supreme Court, which can make Henry Ford sign a license agreement or pay a royalty.” Ford thought that the patent system should be abolished, because, he said, it “produces parasites, men who are willing to lay back on their oars and do nothing,” and because patents afford “opportunities for little minds, directed by others more cunning, to usurp the gains of genuine inventors–for pettifoggers to gain a strategic advantage over honest men, and, under a smug protest of righteousness, work up a hold-up game in the most approved fashion.””
Inventors are cool though.
“The lawsuit against Ford became Kearns’ life. He put every penny he had into it. He was driven by an uncynical, almost spiritual belief in justice and an equally pure hatred of the automobile industry. At a hearing in 1980, Kearns said, “I want you to understand that I am wearing a little badge here, and that badge says that I am an inventor, and it says I am a net contributor to society. And it is like maybe you can’t see the badge, and these other gentlemen can’t see the badge, and I don’t think anybody is going to be able to see the badge until my trial is finished in this courtroom and I will find out whether I am wearing the badge or not.”