Subject: Re: Patent-based dual-licensing open source business model
From: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller <robin@roblimo.com>
Date: Thu, 14 Sep 2006 09:02:28 -0400

This whole thread is making me a little nostalgic for the days when 
patents were "good," and people whose names were on corporate patents 
got bonuses and held parties to celebrate when they got them.

My father was a mechanical engineer and ham radio operator who made a 
decent living for many years by melding his knowledge of mechanical 
design with his understanding of electricity and electronics.

His first employment after WWII was self-employment. He  and  fellow 
engineer Stan Marvin  set up Marvin & Miller in Oakland, California,  
to  design -- and patent -- new "electromechanical" devices. They had 
several successes, including an improved steam iron thermostat design 
they sold to General Electric  for enough money that they closed up shop 
and took several years off from work.

In later years, after I was born (in 1952), except for a short time 
(1955 - 1959) operating a design-oriented prototype machine shop in 
Compton, California, called Roland Miller and associates, my father 
worked for larger companies. Over the years he designed machinery that:

- Helped Hunt Foods use electrostatic printing (directly on metal can 
bodies) to eliminate paper labels on cans.

- Worked on machinery that allowed tomatoes to be sorted and packed 
without bruising -- and with far fewer human steps than had previously 
been required. (The plant where these improvements were first 
implemented was in Hayward, and many of the tomatoes came from 
company-owned fields in Fremont.)

- Worked on electrical connector improvements for Cannon Electric (home 
of Cannon Plugs).

- Developed several interesting switches that incorporated simple 
circuits directly into the switches themselves; first for Marco-Oak 
Electronetics, later for Transistor Electronics Corp. (AKA TEC).

- Worked on software-controlled CRT "pixel by pixel" displays for TEC 
that led to Pong and other video games, later to graphics- capable 
computer monitors that didn't need room-sized computers to drive them.

The salary and bonuses from these patents supported our family nicely, 
if not in exec-style luxury. They also gave my father the option of 
working from home (he always had a well-equipped home workshop and ham 
shack) much of the time.  No one said any of his work was evil, except 
for a few union activists who complained that his work (along with work 
done by many others) was eliminating blue-collar jobs. The idea of an 
engineer earning a salary -- and sometimes bonuses that exceeded his 
salary -- for inventing or co-inventing patentable devices was 
considered laudable, not knocksome.

Note the difference from what we see today: These were all devices or 
physical products of one sort or another. Many were the result of 
observing how things worked in apparently disparate fields and melding 
ideas from them. My father was always proudest of his "Form-Z" switch 
(mid-60s) that used a lever system similar to a screw-type automobile 
jack to actuate a reed switch with almost no finger pressure -- 
something originally designed for a NASA application that found wide 
civilian use in elevator buttons you only had to "touch" instead of 
pressing.

The patent office has changed since then, and so has the corporate 
landscape.

I'm not sure that all the changes I've seen in my lifetime are good. 
Some of them obviously are, but I think others stifle innovation. It's 
not always easy to tell which is which -- except that I remember the 
*basic science* and *principles* behind virtually all of my father's 
best work resulting in papers published in the IEEE Spectrum and other 
peer-reviewed publications because both he and his employers believed 
that sharing basic knowledge freely was their duty; something they did 
because an increase in general knowledge would inevitably improve our 
country and, indeed, life everywhere in the world.

I suspect that if my father was still alive (he died in 1970), he'd be 
an ardent free software supporter -- and would probably also be in favor 
of patentable devices *using* free software, since he believed strongly 
in our patent system, and believed it helped build an ever-stronger, 
increasingly prosperous America.

- Robin