What patents have in common with viruses

Contagion of ideas: the meme

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” as a unit or measure of cultural transmission – the process in which ideas, behaviour, style or other aspects of culture spread, “transmit” or self-propagate much in the way that genes propagate in the gene pool.

Malcom Gladwell likens a meme to “an idea that behaves like a virus that moves through a population, taking hold in each person it infects”: http://www.gladwell.com/tippingpoint/

So, what do patents have to do with memes?

The all-important filing date provides a clue to the answer. This is because patents are ultimately a product of their times. They reflect current cultural beliefs, values and trends – albeit with an eye to the future. 

In this sense, patents are a form of meme, replicating and transmitting ideas from one mind to another.  The patent system serves as a permanent, carefully maintained record of such ideas.

What cultural messages can patents convey?

We live in the Information Revolution. Our lives are driven by an explosion of information and technologies to improve access to, and the management, analysis and filtering of information. This is reflected by an increasing prevalence of patents for information and communication technologies (ICT).  At “street” level, evolving ICT technologies are changing behaviour, with many consumers now owning and using several different internet-connected mobile devices.

The value of owning such patents has not been lost on the big technology companies, with the recent staging of the so-called smartphone patent wars. We witnessed Google’s losing bid in June 2011 for Nortel’s 6,000 patent portfolio. The successful bidder, for $4.5 billion, was a consortium including Apple and Microsoft. Two months later, Google successfully acquired Motorola Mobility and its 17,000 patents for $12.5 billion, making Google a major patent holder in the mobile and networking space: see WSJ.

ICT patents have formed an increasing proportion of the total number of patents filed since the mid 1990s. Interestingly, the OECD reports that the rapidly developing BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China) have enjoyed double the rate of increase in ICT patents (as a proportion of all patents) as in other OECD countries between 2003 and 2005.

Does this presage emerging dominance of the BRIC economies in the early twenty-first century, while the world’s largest economies falter?

Other trends can be seen by “drilling” into patent records at different times. The wonderful illustrations above come from the fabulously titled patent “Buoyant bulletproof combat uniform” (US 3398406). It was filed 30 December 1965 – during the Vietnam war. The patent sought to address the risk of drowning experienced in World War II, when many servicemen drowned during the invasion of Normandy Beach because they were unable to swim and because of the weight of the equipment they were wearing.

A single patent is not conclusive of any cultural trends. However, it exemplifies timely innovation in an area that is the focus of current collective thought. The patent system is thus a wonderful mechanism for reflecting on cultural trends, providing snapshots of cultural trends and mapping the contagion of ideas.

To paraphrase from Abraham Lincoln (who ranked the patent system as among the three most important developments in history):

“the patent system add[s] the fuel of interest to the fire of genius”.

1P: OUT OF YOUR MIND ®

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