Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Patent Pending

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Patent Pending

Article excerpt

Coal mining was a mortally dangerous profession 200 years ago. Apart from poisonous gas, falling rock, and black lung, there was the ever present threat of explosion. The open-flamed lamps of miners occasionally encountered firedamp--a mixture of methane and air--with disastrous results. Explosions snuffed the lives of hundreds of miners every year.

At least they did until Sir Humphrey Davy visited a coal mine in the early 1800s. Davy wasn't a miner--he was the foremost chemist of his day--but he identified with miners and understood the fragility of their lives. He was particularly concerned about firedamp. After a couple of years' work, Davy developed a safety lamp that isolated the flame from the surrounding gas. Davy's device saved thousands of lives, to the gratification of miners, their families, and generations of offspring who could thank him--almost as much as their own parents--for having been born.

Davy would not patent his invention, however. He believed that any invention dedicated to saving lives should be freely available to anyone who could benefit from it.

Patent law has come a long way since Sir Humphrey Davy's day. Take Dolly, the cloned sheep, for instance. She's a patentable product. And Craig Venter, one of the leaders of the Human Genome Project--which raises hope for curing cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer's disease, obesity, and dozens of other human frailties--has already applied for over 6,000 patents, based on his genome research. Although the U.S. Patent Office has recorded only a few thousand DNA patents so far, that number will eventually reach into the millions.

To obtain a patent in the United States, you must show that your invention is new, useful, novel, and nonobvious. …

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