Friday, July 24, 2009

Honesty as Fully-Informed Logical Elegance

I'm working out the final strategy for a patent application today, and in trying to perfect the application my goal can best be described as "fully informed logical elegance." That is, I want my application to be the simplest possible depiction of only the essential aspects of my invention, where "invention" is understood as a new way or means to accomplish a desirable end. Of course, one cannot assume one actually has an invention: Each patent claim requires research to be credible, and even after being granted a patent, the patent has provisional "credibility" in the sense of being subject to disallowance on the basis of further research. My goal in writing my patent application, then, is to give the simplest, fullest and most straightforward rendering of my invention that I can claim, given a full understanding the the field in which I claim my invention. In short, it is my duty to strive after a fully-informed logical elegance in describing my patent claim.

This might sound obvious to the point of making the point needless. That would be wildly false. I'll give you a couple examples.

First, from talking with a patent examiner a couple of years ago. Because I filed a patent as a "small entity," I qualified as a "pro se" applicant. That is important for this story only in that I qualified to get help from the patent examiner as a result (assuming he believed that my claim was patentable but could use some professional help--BTW: the only changes that resulted were correcting a couple of spelling errors, which no patient reader of my musings will be surprised to hear :-)). In describing my approach to the claim in question, i basically said what I just wrote about seeking the shortest and most logically elegant description of my invention that I could manage. In telling him that I noted that most of the patents I had reviewed in preparing my application didn't seem to take that approach. "Lawyers!" he exclaimed, and proceeded to explain that in trying to protect every possible way to invent around their client's patent that lawyers typically take the opposite approach that I had: They seek to file a claim for every means of accomplishing the basic idea of the invention. The result is an extraordinary amount of needless complexity in a patent application. Now I don't want to be too critical. A patent for a good invention will probably--if the idea is really good, almost certainly--result in copy-cat versions of the invention that try to get around the patent on a technicality. One way to fend off such attempts is to make a seperate 'claim" of invention for every possible way that the filer can imagine a copy-cat "inventor" trying to evade the main claim. That sounds like a justifiable approach, given the fact that a lawyer is hired to protect her client's rights. That is, it sounds justifiable until you hear that a patent has a section called "Conclusion, Ramifications, and Scope" in which the patent writier can explain why she chose the particular "ideal embodiment' that she did, and how alternative means of accomplishing the desired end were considered and rejected. By simply rejecting alternative means of accomplishing the desired end, one puts a notice in the public record that that idea has already been considered, thereby disallowing any patent claim using that idea. So why do laywers add those alternative means of accomplishing the main claim to the claim section? Because by putting them there, they add the the technical section of the patent application that they can charge much more for writing. (There is a very specific and arcane set of rules for writing claims.) But by doing so, the logical clarity of the claims is obscured; the process of researching claims made much more difficult; and in general, much more work is made for lawyers who want to wrangle of money over hard to understand legal claims. It takes a certain amount of faith to take the opposite tack from the norm in writing a patent claim, but if a person has got an invention; describes it cogently; and can defend the description as the "ideal embodiment" in relation to inferior means of accomplishing the desired end, then there is no need for the multiplication of claims that serve no real end beyond lawyers' bank accounts and do damage to a system that ought to seek after fully-informed logical elegance...

The second example: The current US health care debate is full of either insincere bluster or profound ignorance. Either way there is a tremendous need to move in the direction of fully-informed logical elegance. Consider the conservative claims that the free market is the best way to deal with the current problems in our broken health care system AND that if the government creates an alternative to the free market offerings that the government alternative will have unfair advantages over the free market alternatives that may well put them out of business. It astounds me that apparently sincere people can hold those positions simultaneously and not begin to blush. And yet on the other hand, it astounds me just as much that a person as bright and knowledgable as our President can argue that the free market has had its chance, thereby rendering the conservative claim false (as Mr. Obama has claimed on many occasions). Isn't it clear that the kinds of standards that clarify grades of butter, apples, and eggs are not clarifying our choices in purchasing health care? But that instead an endlessly changing set of rules embedded in documents the size of books and written in dismaying jargons of the medical and legal professions make comparrisons across plans difficult and pointless even if they weren't difficult. That is enough to make it impossible for "the market approach" to work. But add to that the fact that people making the most important and expensive choices are often in a state of duress and extreme need, and the guarante is in place. If we don't fact the hard choices, and do so by clarifying what they are and how we might approach them--that is quite a task, but nothing less has a chance to work!--the entire present debate is disingenuous and doomed.

Well, it's sad that too often people protect their interest by obfuscation. The only way to combat that is to present a clear account of the matter that is being made unintelligible and hope that those who care about the matter will choose honest discussion over bluster and BS. Only by making fuly-informed logical elegance one's goal can a complex subject be rendered as clar as the subject allows. It is a goal devoutly to be wished...

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