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.