We’ve seen this many times before, how patents can hold back very useful developments. Notice how 3D printing is suddenly a big thing? It’s not because of any new miraculous breakthroughs, but because some key patents finally started expiring, allowing real innovation to move forward. We saw something similar in the field of infrared grills, which were put on the… uh… back burner (sorry) until key patents expired. Derek now points us to a similar example.
A guy named Nathan Broadbent went out and hacked his microwave with a Raspberry Pi after being inspired by a post on Reddit. Basically, he made his microwave into a “smart” microwave that did a variety of neat things, including:
- Clock is automatically updated from the internet
- Can be controlled with voice commands
- Can use a barcode scanner to look up cooking instructions from an online database
- There weren’t any online microwave cooking databases around, so I made one:http://microwavecookingdb.com
- The microwave has a web page so you can control it from your phone (why not), and set up cooking instructions for products
- Tweets after it’s finished cooking something (See https://twitter.com/rbmicrowave)
It’s a nice little example of the cool product hacking going on these days, and is yet another cool example of the Raspberry Pi in action. The folks over at Reviewed.com wrote about this last summer and pointed out that Broadbent was putting established microwave oven makers to shame by doing the kind of thing they should have been doing ages ago.
Of course, it’s down in the comments where we get a suggestion as to why we haven’t seen this kind of innovation actually appearing in the market: patents. A guy named Paul Becker notes that he had explored this idea about a decade ago, but realized there were too many patents in the area, meaning that it would be impossible to bring it to market. He notes it’s not an exhaustive list, but here are a few of the patents named:
- US Patent 4,323,773: Bar code controlled microwave oven
- US Patent 7,404,519: Microwave oven with bar code scanner
- US Patent 6,124,583: Barcode reading microwave oven
- US Patent 7,723,655: Microwave oven using bar code and method for controlling the same
Not all of those patents are still valid, but those seem to be just ones involving microwaves with barcodes. I’m sure that it would be easy to find patents covering many of the other features that Broadbent included. Just for the hell of it, I did a quick search (very, very quick) and came up with other patents and applications (both in the US and elsewhere) that might also apply — such as this application for a patent on an “intelligent microwave oven appliance.” Or this for an “internet microwave oven.” Or this for a “microwave oven system receiving information through the internet and operating in accordance with the received information.” Or this one for controlling a microwave through the internet. If you look, I’m sure you’ll find more.
Either way, there’s no evidence that Broadbent needed any of these patents (or any patents at all) to figure out how to do any of this, or to even think of the idea or how to execute it. Instead, like most innovations, he was inspired to scratch the innovative itch after realizing how useful something like that might be for himself. And he could do it, thanks to useful tools like the Raspberry Pi, not because of any patent. But anyone who wanted to go out and market and sell such a thing would almost certainly be hit by a variety of patent infringement suits from patent holders who never did the simple thing that Broadbent did: build an awesome microwave.
And that’s why so many people are so concerned about how our patent system holds backinnovation (and not just in the software realm). The idea of an internet-connected-anything wasn’t being held back because no one was able to think up the idea, or because they couldn’t protect their idea for 20 years thanks to a patent monopoly, but because the rest of the infrastructure needed to catch up. But, today, it’s easy to build these kinds of things — but we can’t. Thanks to patents… which are holding back, rather than promoting, innovation.
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