Monday, September 21, 2009

Mark Twain on Patents and Inventions

On September 14, 2009, David Kappos, new Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, spoke at the annual conference of  Intellectual Property Owners Association ("IPO"). See In his conclusion, he quoted from Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court:
“A country without a patent office and good patent laws is just a crab and can’t travel anyway but sideways or backwards.”
When that quote first came to my attention back in December 2001
(It was on the USPTO homepage.  Perhaps that's where Kappos first saw it, too? Or maybe Kappos himself sent it to the USPTO?)
I grabbed my copy of The Autobiography of Mark Twain by Samuel Clemens (New York 1959, original copyright 1917), to look for references to patents.  Sure enough, chapter 45 was right on point. Here is my slightly abridged transcription:
"An old and particular friend of mine unloaded a patent on me, price fifteen thousand dollars. It was worthless and he had been losing money on it a year or two, but I did not know those particulars because he neglected to mention them. He said that if I would buy the patent he would do the manufacturing and selling for me. So I took him up. Then began a cash outgo of five hundred dollars a month. ....
"At last, when I had lost forty-two thousand dollars on that patent I gave it away to a man whom I had long detested and whose family I desired to ruin. Then I looked around for other adventures. That same friend was ready with another patent. I spent ten thousand dollar in eight months. Then I tried to give that patent to the man whose family I was after. He was very grateful but he was also experienced by this time and was getting suspicious of benefactors. He wouldn't take it and I had to let it lapse.
"Meanwhile, another old friend arrived with a wonderful invention. ...
"Finally, when I had spent five thousand on this enterprise the machine was finished, but it wouldn't go. .... I took some stock in a Hartford company which proposed to make and sell and revolutionize everything with a new kind of steam pulley. The steam pulley pulled thirty-two thousand dollars out of my pocket in sixteen months, then went to pieces and I was alone in the world again, without an occupation.
"But I found one. I invented a scrapbook -- and if I do say it myself, it was the only rational scrapbook the world has ever seen. I patented it and put it in the hands of that old particular friend of mine who had originally interested me in patents and he made a good deal of money out of it. ...
[Another speculation -- not involving a patent this time -- leaves Twain out by $23,000, but ultimately he is repaid. This amount is in the check in his pocket in the next paragraph.]
"... General Hawley sent for me to come to the Courant office. I went there with my check in my pocket. There was a young fellow there [who] was with Graham Bell and was agent for a new invention called the telephone. He believed there was great fortune in store for it and wanted me to take some stock. I declined. I said I didn't want anything more to do with wildcat speculation. Then he offered the stock to me at twenty-five. I said I didn't want it at any price. [The price kept coming down until the man] said I could have a whole hatful for five hundred dollars. But I was the burnt child and I resisted all these temptations, resisted them easily, went off with my check intact, and next day lent five thousand of it on an unendorsed note to my friend who was going to go bankrupt three days later.
"About the end of the year (or possibly in the beginning of 1878) I put up a telephone wire from my house down to the Courant office, the only telephone wire in town and the first one that was ever used in a private house in the world. {emphasis Twain's}
"The young man couldn't sell me any stock but he sold a few hatfuls of it to an old dry-goods clerk in Hartford for five thousand dollars. That was that clerk's whole fortune. He had been half a lifetime saving it. It is strange how foolish people can be and what ruinous risks they can take....
"We sailed for Europe on the 10th of April, 1878. We were gone fourteen months and when we got back one of the first things we saw was that clerk driving around in a sumptuous barouche with liveried servants all over it -- and his telephone stock was emptying greenbacks into his premises at such a rate that he had to handle them with a shovel. It is strange the way the ignorant and inexperienced so often and so undeservedly succeed when the informed and the experienced fail."


US Patent No. 140,245, "Improvement in Scrap-books," was issued to Samuel L. Clemens on June 24, 1873.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Corporations Can't Vote! Comment on Citizens United v. FEC oral argument

Today on NPR Nina Totenberg gave her usual excellent report on a hearing before the Supreme Court. This one was in Citizens United v FEC. One of the colloquys she mentioned was between petitioner's counsel Ted Olson (Theodore F) and the Justices concerning whether corporate 'persons' should have the same rights as natural persons. As far as I could tell, *nobody* - not current Solicitor General Kagan, not any of the other Justices - pointed out that corporations do NOT have the right to VOTE. The right to vote is definitely a right reserved only to natural persons. It makes sense, then, to restrict to natural persons the right to contribute to the campaigns of the candidates for whom only natural persons can vote.

I checked the briefs very quickly, and it looked like this key fact was not made explicit by any of the amici, either, although the League of Woman Voters did mention the "bedrock equality principle of one person, one vote." Which does not apply to corporate "persons."