Patently Obvious

Patents are useless and stifle innovation.  The only people who benefit from patents are patent lawyers and big companies with lots of money.

Some people think that when you take out a patent it somehow protects your idea from being copied by other people or companies.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  All you get when you take out a patent is a piece of paper which says that you have the right to sue anyone using your idea without your permission.

The cost of actually defending a patent is enormous.  What this means is that big business and those with lots of money can use the patent system to their advantage against small startup companies and individuals who don’t have the money to defend their patent.

In effect this means that big business can ignore patents on any ideas they use that are held by small companies or individuals knowing that they can afford to bankrupt the other party if legal action is taken against them even if they are in the wrong.

A company would rather pay hundreds of thousands of pounds to their legal department to break your patent than pay you a few hundreds or thousands of pounds in royalties.  Patents which are not owned by the company are something to be ignored or worked around or broken in court.

And then there is the issue of Patent Trolls.  Companies with lots of money who accumulate ownership of lots of patents with no intention of ever developing them into useful products, instead they wait until someone else develops the idea and then sue them.

I work for the NHS in a research department.

A few years ago we had an idea to help clinicians in Accident & Emergency with a problem they have fairly regularly.  When the patients airways are blocked it may be necessary to insert a breathing tube, if it is necessary then you only have a short time to get the tube inserted correctly before the patient becomes starved of oxygen.  What this means is that you have to get it right first time because you only get one chance.

The problem is that the throat splits into two tubes, the oesophagus which leads to the stomach and the trachea which goes to the lungs.  The breathing tube has to go down the trachea or the patient suffocates, but the anatomy is arranged so that things naturally go down the oesophagus so it is quite difficult to get the tube in correctly and takes a fair amount of skill on the part of the clinician or paramedic.

The idea we had was for a tube which fits inside a standard breathing tube, an inner tube with a small video camera and LED light mounted in the end with wires which could be pulled to angle or guide the end of the tube.  The clinician can actually see what they are doing.  When the tube is correctly positioned you pull out the inner tube leaving the breathing tube inserted correctly.  Video cameras are now small enough to make this possible.

We had this developed to the stage of a working prototype.  A small battery powered plastic box with an LCD screen and a tube which was waterproof which could be inserted into a standard breathing tube.

But there was a problem, the idea had already been patented.  A firm of lawyers in America had a patent on this idea (and a lot of other ideas) so the lawyers for our NHS trust decided that this project could not be developed because of the fear of legal action by the American law firm.

I wouldn’t mind but the law firm in America are just patent trolls, their intention is to patent many ideas and then when someone develops something which uses one of their ideas they will leap out from under the bridge and present them with a writ.  They have no intention of ever developing this idea, even if they did they have neither the expertise or the facilities to do so.

So patents actually stifle innovation.  This device could have been saving lives in British hospitals by now but instead it will not be developed because a firm of lawyers in America want to make a lot of money out of it someday.

 

A Virtual Hearing Aid

There are problems with hearing tests and the provision of hearing aids in poorer countries, but an alternative use of existing technology could provide a partial solution.


The project I did for my bachelors degree was the design of an audiometer.  An Audiometer is a device to test a persons hearing.

This audiometer was designed to run from batteries and used very little power.  It was designed for use in third world countries.  But unfortunately there were some problems.  The headphones used in hearing tests are very expensive so even if the audiometer could be made very cheaply the headphones would be the limiting factor in how cheaply the audiometer could be sold.

There is also a problem in providing hearing aids to people in third world countries, even if the aid is provided for free (which is rare) then the ongoing cost of batteries is often too much for some poorer people.

It seems to me that there are many mobile phones in the world, even in third world countries many people who struggle to find the money for food have a mobile phone in their pocket.  Also countries like India manufacture very cheap Android mobile phones.

Mobile phone manufacturers have done a great deal of research into making mobile phones efficient at playing music into headphones using as little battery power as possible.

It ought to be possible to program an application to take the sound from the microphone and play it through the headphones with the facility to adjust the volume, this ought to be a fairly simple application.  It might even be possible to include a graphic equaliser to adjust the frequency response.

If this were possible, especially if this app was available as a free download then deaf people in third world countries who already have a mobile phone could download a ‘virtual’ hearing aid for free.

Of course I would always recommend a professionaly done hearing test and I acknowledge that a mobile phone app is no substitute for a real hearing test and a properly prescribed hearing aid but healthcare in third world countries is seldom free and having some sort of hearing aid is better than going without anything, but only if it is your only option.

Because this idea has been put out into the public domain in this blog nobody can apply a software patent to the idea, they could copyright their own implementation of the idea but they could not stop anyone from writing a different implementation of the idea.

I have never written a mobile phone app so I don’t know how complicated it might be to write such an app but it seems to me that it might not be that complicated and it would certainly be of potential use to a great many people.

Who is up for the challenge?