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June 17, 2005

Inventors Work Hard to be Lazy

The PHOSITA blog has a great list of quotes on invention, including the following from Agatha Christie:

I don't think necessity is the mother of invention - invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness. To save oneself trouble.

The purpose of many inventions is to make life easier for the inventions' users. New toasters, cars, and lawn mowers make it easier for the people who use them to make toast, travel, and mow the lawn.

But the purpose of many other inventions is to make it easier for inventors to invent. An engineer might write a computer program to simulate new designs for automobile frames, thereby saving the time, money, and effort needed to build and test physical prototypes of the frames. Similarly, engineers have long invented measurement tools, ranging from calipers to electronic calculators, to make it easier to build and test their inventions more accurately.

Inventors invent such new devices to make their lives as inventors easier -- "[t]o save oneself trouble," in Christie's words. The use of such "invention-facilitating inventions" is usually transparent to the end user, who has no way to know whether his new toaster was designed by pure human ingenuity or by an automated computer program.

Invention-facilitating inventions have long been patentable. But such inventions arguably "promote the progress of useful arts" (the ultimate purpose of U.S. patent law) only indirectly, by reducing the resources (e.g., time, money, raw materials) required to invent. If this is a sufficient basis for patentability, then why not allow improvements in pure mathematics, or at least improvements in "pure software" that performs calculations more efficiently? Surely such improvements may be applied to facilitate the process of inventing.

Although I won't attempt to provide any answers to these questions here, I think that the debate over software patents is in part a debate over how direct the connection needs to be between the function performed by a computer program and some real-world ("practical" or "industrial") use for patent protection to be justified. Future improvements in automated inventing will only make resolution of this question more pressing.

Posted by Robert at June 17, 2005 12:10 PM
category: Design & Engineering | Human Creativity | Software Patents

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