Printing 19th Century Artifacts in 3D

Martin Galese, a 31-year-old lawyer in New York, is resurrecting old patents from the 19th century and making 3D prints of them.

He has posted more than a dozen of these forgotten inventions on his blog as well as the 3-D printing design library,Thingiverse, for anyone to make today.

The New York Times Bits blog has more:

After working as an attorney in patent litigation cases, Mr. Galese said he wishes more people saw the patent archives as a rich repository, flush with freely available designs. He sometimes refers to the patent office’s archives as the “original Thingiverse,” comparing it to the rapidly growing online library of design files shared by 3-D printing hobbyists today.

Others who have seen his 3-D printing files frequently ask why he keeps posting “patented” objects online, he said, not understanding that many former patents are now in the public domain.

“People don’t think people appreciate that aspect of the patent system,” he said.

Most patents issued today last 20 years, but in the past patent protections could be shorter, sometimes lasting 17 years, sometimes less. Out of the more than 8 million patents registered in the United States, only about 2 million are still in force, according to Dennis Crouch, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law who conducted an analysis on the subject last year.

Worth checking out is Mr. Galese’s Tumblr titled “Patent-able.”

The 3D model of the 1940s portable chess set is pretty neat.

On Patent Law, Life, and Nature

Did you know that genes are patentable? Because I hadn’t until I read Michael Specter’s New Yorker piece summarizing patent law as it applies to life:

Traditionally, patents have applied solely to inventions, granted as a reward for ingenuity and to encourage innovation. Naturally occurring substances, like DNA, were exempt from such laws. Then, in 1980, Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, a scientist working for General Electric, filed an application for a patent on a bacterium that he had modified genetically so that it could consume oil. The Patent and Trademark Office rejected Chakrabarty’s application on the ground that the bacterium was a product of nature. Chakrabarty sued, arguing that, by altering the organism, it was his ingenuity that made the bacterium valuable. The case ended up before the Supreme Court, which, by a vote of five to four, ruled in favor of the engineer. “The fact that micro-organisms are alive is without legal significance for the purpose of patent law,” the Court wrote. Chakrabarty’s creation became the first life-form to receive a patent.

Since then, genes considered to have been “isolated from their natural state and purified” have been eligible for patent protection. The first such patents were issued for DNA that had been altered to produce specific proteins, such as the insulin used daily by millions of diabetics. Those patents were rarely controversial. Over the years, however, patents have also been granted to people who have identified genes with mutations that are likely to increase the risk of a disease. Any scientist who wants to conduct research on such a gene—even on a small sequence of its DNA—has to pay license fees. The practical effect has been chilling. According to public-health officials and academic leaders, it has stymied research into many types of disease.

This seems particularly outrageous:

A patent on a product of Nature would authorize the patent holder to exclude everyone from observing, characterizing or analyzing, by any means whatsoever, the product of Nature.

In the end, this is big business (but with a cost):

Moreover, when a company patents a gene, it also patents the rights to what that gene (or any fragment of its DNA) might tell us about our health, including our chances of living or dying. A woman who inherits a harmful version of either of the genes that Myriad has under patent, for example, is five times more likely to develop breast cancer than a woman who does not. She is also at significantly greater risk of developing ovarian cancer. Women who want to know whether they possess those harmful mutations have just one way of finding out: by taking a three-thousand-dollar blood test offered by Myriad Genetics.

Terrifying.

Thomas Jefferson on Patents

In a letter to Isaac McPherson, Thomas Jefferson writes (emphasis mine):

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from anybody. Accordingly, it is a fact, as far as I am informed, that England was, until we copied her, the only country on earth which ever, by a general law, gave a legal right to the exclusive use of an idea. In some other countries it is sometimes done, in a great case, and by a special and personal act, but, generally speaking, other nations have thought that these monopolies produce more embarrassment than advantage to society; and it may be observed that the nations which refuse monopolies of invention, are as fruitful as England in new and useful devices.

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Via Chris Dixon.