Against Monopoly

defending the right to innovate

Monopoly corrupts. Absolute monopoly corrupts absolutely.

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Flash of Genius

The new movie, Flash of Genius, from its previews, looks awful--glorifying intermittent windshield wiper inventor Robert Kearns's use of the patent system to shake down the auto industry for $30M.

After all, it was already well known that existing windshield wipers were problematic--for example, "the blades often scraped across a windshield that was nearly dry. The resultant friction made an annoying sound and tore up the blades' edges." The solution was also obvious: "A solution that occurred to a number of inventors was an intermittent system one that would wipe, pause for a few seconds, then wipe again."

In 1963, Kearns came up with one way to do this, patented it, and eventually sued Ford and Chrysler for using a similar design. "Ford's legal team argued that Kearns's patents were overly broad and therefore invalid. As Ted Daykin, a former Ford engineer, told The New Yorker in a 1993 article, 'An electronic timing device was an obvious thing to try next. How can you patent something that is in the natural evolution of technology?' The intermittent wiper, according to Daykin, was really the work of dozens of anonymous engineers at Ford, Trico, and other firms." Kearns won anyway--"$10.2 million from Ford in 1990 and $18.7 million from Chrysler in 1995, though both juries determined that the companies had not intentionally infringed on his patents."

This movie is sure to annoy. It's no wonder Hollywood likes it: it's pro-IP and anti-capitalism. But Randians have a dilemma--it pits one hero (innovator, patent holder) against another (industry)!

Update: GREAT comment on this at TechDirt.


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