How Patent Law Held Back Communications Technology

For all our professed democratic values, we Americans like to put big-talking, risk-taking guys on pedestals. And then reward them for their pioneering enterprise—even if their iconic American triumph consists of shrewd marketing and possible theft.

Forgive my rant. I’m recuperating from learning that Alexander Graham Bell arguably did not “invent” the telephone.

According to Invented by Law, Christopher Beauchamp’s intriguing case study of Bell’s patent and how it affected the early development of the telephone, Bell’s original patent application was “rife with improprieties.” On Valentine’s Day 1874, electrical engineer Elisha Gray filed a confidential “caveat” with the patent office, to protect his idea for “Transmitting Vocal Sounds Telegraphically.” It apparently sat in a pile. The very same day, Bell’s lawyer hand-delivered Bell’s competing patent application to the patent office—and got it time-stamped.

Bell and his partners almost surely got inside information and favorable treatment from the patent examiner, who was in deep debt to Bell’s attorney. By March 1874, when Bell famously did succeed in transmitting speech and summoning his assistant Watson, his supposed invention resembled not his original patent but that of his rival Gray, who—by virtue of that time-stamp—Bell had beaten to the patent office by hours.

Still, Alexander Graham Bell was widely celebrated as the genius whose invention “annihilated space and cuddled the cities of the Republic around a single fireside.” The Steve Jobs of his day, his legend reflects a public appetite for heroes, obscuring both his appropriations from others and the shady shortcuts that enabled his success.

This says less about him than about us. Success immunizes celebrated Americans from significant scrutiny, especially if they’re white, male, and wealthy. And even when they’re scrutinized, their celebrity luster remains undimmed—indeed, may even be enhanced by “bad boy” exploits. Look at Mark Zuckerberg, an American icon thanks to his “invention” of Facebook and $47.5 billion fortune. The Social Network showed Zuckerberg pilfering the Facebook idea from Harvard classmates who had hired him to write the software, and arguably the Hollywood blockbuster just added to his legend.

The “great man” narrative, attributing invention to individual genius, can lead us astray. It distorts and undermines scientific inquiry, which is a process. Beauchamp makes this point, but his almost exclusive focus on Alexander Graham Bell undersells this argument, which could be bolstered by other genius inventor myths. Perhaps you credit Samuel F.B. Morse with the invention of the telegraph. But what of physicist Joseph Henry, whose discoveries in the field of electromagnetism were the foundation of Morse’s work? Henry even developed an early telegraph, which he demonstrated to his Princeton students. But the good professor valued research and open inquiry over profit.

Beauchamp uses Bell’s story to examine the crucial role of patent law in shaping the history of an invention—who triumphs in the marketplace and the history books. Patent law, by allowing an individual or company to stake a claim to a piece of the continuous process of scientific inquiry, often frames the invention narrative we come to accept.

It can also undermine the public interest —in Bell’s time and today. In 2013, the ACLU went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate Myriad Genetics’ patents on two breast cancer genes—patents that not only made genetic testing for breast cancer exorbitantly expensive, but also stymied medical research because researchers needed to obtain prior consent from Myriad.

Myriad lost its patent battle. Bell’s legend survives because his patent lawyers prevailed. Bell’s brilliant attorneys went for the broadest possible claim, stepping away from the specifics of his original patent to contend that Bell had patented voice transmission. And in 1888, in a hugely controversial 4-3 Supreme Court split, Bell triumphed. The Court’s minority maintained that Bell only won because his years of fame had already cast him as a winner, noting that it is “perfectly natural for the world to take the part of a man who has already achieved eminence.”

Bell’s questionable patent gave Bell Telephone a monopoly on the American telephone industry that extended from 1876 to 1894, when his patent rights expired. Was the public well served? Beauchamp remains seemingly noncommittal as he accumulates evidence that the company’s profit motive subverted the public interest. Bell Telephone’s large-scale rate increases sparked populist fury—and state attempts at regulation were met with ruthless retaliation by Ma Bell. For example, in 1885, when Indiana sought to limit phone rates to $3 a month, the local Bell exchange ripped out a quarter of Indianapolis’ lines and the southern part of the state was left entirely without service.

Bell Telephone’s monopoly stifled the growth of phone service. There were 250,000 phones in the United States when the company’s monopoly ended. Five years later, by 1899, the number was over one million—and in the following five-year intervals the numbers leaped to three million and seven million.

Across the pond, Beauchamp notes, Sweden demonstrated what could happen without a patent law to enforce monopoly. Swedish engineer L. M. Ericsson developed his own version of the phone to compete with the Bell franchise—and by the 1890s, Stockholm had the highest number of telephones per capita of any city in the world. Ericsson’s firm “became a leader in innovation and export.”

The rationale for patents is that they promote invention. This claim seems doubtful, at least with regard to the telephone. A recent blog post by Sam Pizzigati reminds us of Dr. Jonas Salk, who invented the polio vaccine—and deliberately never filed for a patent. Pizzigati contrasts the public-spirited Dr. Salk with today’s patent-holding billionaires:

“Who owns the patent on this vaccine?” [journalist Edward R.] Murrow asked the newly famous doctor.
“Well, the people, I would say,” Salk replied. “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Beauchamp’s mild-mannered book avoids ideology, but to me it reads like a wonky addendum to The Big Short, the book and movie displaying capitalism run wildly amuck. Patent law, like finance, seems to have developed a culture of obscurity and expertise that serves to enrich a select few. “Trust us, we know what we’re doing,” they say. And we oblige, treating our profiteers like prophets and visionaries even when they screw us.


View comments (2)
Read the Terms of Use


and it is happening now with technology.
High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) is a form of digital copy protection developed by Intel Corporation to prevent copying of digital audio and video content as it travels across connections.

We need to understand that HDCP has nothing to do with providing any service nor any value to the customer. It benefits others, and thus restricts the customer’s use of the product, he paid for. The customer pays for it and it benefits others, mostly large corporations seeking to interfere in the actions of common human beings. And that is enforced on the customer by large corporations in collusion with each other.

Each upgrade restricts more; unlike a protocol that advances electronic communication. So something like HDMI that transfers music and video in one cord. HDMI 1.0 did ok with basic 480p. As better video and sound was needed 1.1, then 1.2, 1.4a,b,c, etc. Each of these allowed more data and better quality; and was backward compatible. Eventually fast 4K 60fps video demanded a new standard, HDMI 2.0. More is better for the customer, and yet does the same for old customers. There is no compromise by advancing to the latest standard.

Lets be clear the large entertainment corporations will impose more and greater restrictions for their benefit, until the citizen revolts. But they do not understand yet.

The advent of HDMI 2.0 provided the technical ability for the latest restriction by HDCP. A coincidence and not a cause or effect, and not a necessity. Not related except by that they occurred at the same time.

So 4K is rare. Very rare and so it is not experienced widely. Most 4K TVs upscale to 4k and thus are not affected by HDCP restriction.

However, HDCP requires that every single device in the chain of equipment also be compliant. Thus if a customer has a $4,000 audio video receiver that routes all the DVD players, and BluRay, and other devices (which is exactly what it was designed to do and why it was purchased) has to be literally thrown in the trash in and replaced with a HDCP 2.2 compliant AV unit in order to play 4K, and only because the TV manufacturer chose to do this to its customer. So if you buy a 4K phone and want to see the movie on your 4K TV, you have to replace every single piece of hardware in the line. And the only reason is to protect some large corporation or its buddy.

The word “compliant” is used. There is no law that requires this. The standard is not needed to accomplish any objective, other than what the large media corporations impose. No cost to for the customer is considered. No tribulation of the purchaser is too great.

How does one know if your system is not compliant? If just fails to operate. So LG one of those corporations, had employees who did not understand its operation, and replaced an entire TV, an entire board that failed to do anything, and another replacement board before the customer isolated the problem for them. Even then the tech people kicked the problem up to VIP care, and then after they did not understand, kick it up to an engineer, who then defined the problem. Just what is a customer to do?

Well the large corporations feel justified because these evil doers should be prosecuted, punished, and fined for using their proprietary content. Once identified, no matter of reasonable resolution, nor warning, nor any of the social norms of communication is deemed by them necessary. Their conclusion is definitive and beyond appeal, because it is hardwired into the system. And will result in the customer being sent to jail, according to their warning.

There is no law that grants corporations the right to dictate to humans what they can and cannot do. There is no moral code either. Each human is equal under the law, and corporations are allowed to exist in law, solely for the social benefit of human beings.

So what is this evil doers offending act, ready for prosecution, ten of thousands of dollars of legal fees to defense, and jail time? He bought a 4k camera. The took pictures of his family in Yellowstone, and attempted to play that on the TV. All within his home. Really, jail time for watching home movies of fully dressed people, with four layers of clothes in 17 degree temperature. This is entirely ridiculous.

But wait it does get worse. These TV are selected for the classroom and other public displays.

HDCP does not even begin address the “fair use doctrine" for the use of materials by people referencing common video and audio to illustrate an idea. No program can comprehend, and never was intended to do so. So now LG has stepped directly into the censorship of free speech.

Suppose I am a professor assembling a video for my accounting students on the problems of worldwide taxation. I take a 3 second clip of Dorothy clicking her heals, and other of a map sequence showing an arrow jumping from Kansas to Luxembourg; where the Corporate tax is 4% and not 40% in the USA. That three seconds prevented the entire presentation in the class room of 55 students. I could not anticipate every display, every nuance of rules in each of those, growing in number every day, to know that video working at home, would not work on that one TV in that class room, at that time, that will censor my freedom of speech.

LG you have some real problems that have to be addressed now. You have and continue to violate my civil rights by censoring. You do so in concert with others, which is RICO, racketeering that drags everyone you work with into the this. Talk to your buddies and stand down.


I read much about the Patent Law through this article. This is a useful information and I'll share this with my family as well.

Stay Informed