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Patent This!

The patent wars and how they inspire great minds, even some that think alike.

I was surprised to learn recently that Henry Ford and Thomas Edison invented the charcoal briquette. How that came about, I don't know. Maybe:

"Say, Henry," says Tom, "I really like that whole assembly line deal you came up with."
"Couldn't have done it without your electricity, Tom," responds Henry.
"Thanks! Want to have lunch?"
"Sure! You like barbecue?"
"Ribs sound good, Henry."
"But how to cook them, Tom?"
In unison: "Hmmm."

Two Great Minds

They pace for a while, and then a lightbulb appears over Tom's head (patented, of course). At the same time, Henry snaps his fingers, but forgets to copyright the gesture (fortunately for us). Henry provides the sawdust and glue; Tom provides the factory.

But just as the first briquettes are rolling off the assembly line, Henry turns to Tom and asks, "But how do we get them lit?"

In unison, pacing: "Hmmm."

Meanwhile, across town, George Westinghouse and Nikolai Tesla have just invented lighter fluid, and are wracking their brains to find an application for it....

But that's another story for another time.

So many things we take for granted — corn flakes, potato chips, soft drinks, broccoli, and dachshunds, to name but a few — didn't spring from nature, but from the inspirations of human beings.

Nobody thought to patent the dachshund at the time, even though (as everybody knows) it was invented by Johann Goethe and Immanuel Kant, after being plagued by a badger infestation. No, they never bothered to patent the wiener dog. They had bigger fish to fry (which is why they invented the deep fat fryer in 1790).

Today, however, is a different story.

Mine! All Mine!

A few months back, the agribusiness giant Monsanto won a lawsuit against a Canadian farmer, Percy Schmeiser. The farmer was found guilty of "infringing Monsanto's patent." According to its Web site, monsanto.com, "Monsanto originally pursued this case in the Federal Court of Canada because Mr. Schmeiser knowingly infringed Monsanto's patents on Roundup Ready technology by planting 1,030 acres of Roundup Ready canola without paying the required license fee for using the technology."

Well, to my mind, this is a slippery slope. I'm no farmer, but how can I be expected to know whether my oil comes from wild canola, or canola from somebody else's herd?

Also, there was a lawsuit, settled last year, by one Daniel Greenberg and David Green against the Canavan Foundation and the National Tay-Sachs & Allied Diseases Association. The two nonprofit organizations research cures and treatments for Canavan Disease, a degenerative brain disorder affecting Greenberg and Green's children. It seems that the two organizations had identified the gene mutation that caused the disease, and had (essentially) patented it. Apparently, to be tested for the disease, patients have to pay them a royalty.

Again, these are deep waters, which makes the slope that much more slippery.

Shoales-R-Us

Rather than be alarmed, though, I'm kicking myself. If I'd patented The Sniffles(tm) back in the day, every time somebody sneezed I'd be a dollar richer.

Maybe it's not too late. I have submitted the following to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office:

Glower. A unique scowling technique designed to intimidate and repel those around you. Video on request. Also includes Smirk, Grimace, Pout, and Goggle.

Frustrated Sigh. Outtake of breath designed to relieve tension during traffic jams, system crashes, and when briquettes fail to ignite, among many other handy applications.

Mutt. The DNA of this great dog I used to have.

Fire. Combustion of inflammable materials producing heat and light and (sometimes) smoke. It's mine now! Mine! If you want a barbecue, pal, remember, I'm the go-to guy. (See also: Meat.)

Ian Shoales owns himself in San Francisco. This has not made him any money.

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