You may have heard this week that Abraham Lincoln filed a patent for Facebook in 1845. Rest assured, it’s as untrue as it sounds. While the hoax ran wild around the Internet, the stories about it tended to get one piece right: Lincoln held a patent for an invention, making him the only president with that distinction. In 1849, he received a patent for a flotation system to help dislodge boats from sandbars. As Smithsonian magazine described in 2006, Lincoln traveled on the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes in his younger years and experienced the hazard of unpredictable sandbars.
Lincoln was a strong supporter of inventors and of the patent system in particular. In lectures delivered from 1858 to 1860, he even called the patent system one of the three greatest human achievements to spur invention (the other two were the development of writing and printing, and the discovery of America). The patent system, he said, “added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.”
Those words are now engraved in stone on the Department of Commerce in Washington, but the admiration of the patent system hasn’t been quite so permanent. Today, many think patents are more trouble than they’re worth—or worse, stifle creation altogether.
At a meeting on Capitol Hill last month hosted by Public Knowledge, open-source hardware enthusiasts discussed why they choose to invent without patents, and why patents don’t provide the “fuel of interest” they once did. Alicia Gibb, head of the new Open Source Hardware Association, explained that patents were created in the spirit of open sourcing. “When you get a patent, you have to open-source the designs,” Gibb said. “You have to tell people what you’re doing and how you did it.” The difference, of course, is that patents give creators 20 years of exclusive rights to their invention.
The open-source model, on the other hand, invites anyone to re-create, redesign, and improve a product as they wish. Many small or independent inventors (or makers, tinkerers, etc.) post their designs online to get feedback from the community. Since they don’t really want exclusive rights, they don’t see value in securing patents. Instead, they want their products to spread around and be improved upon rapidly. To them, as Public Knowledge attorney Michael Weinberg describes it, patents are a barrier rather than a shield.
But just because inventors embrace open-sourcing doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in building businesses around their inventions—and that can be a tough sell to investors. When Ayah Bdeir created littleBits, which she describes as Legos for the electronic age, she initially had trouble getting support for a business that didn’t own its intellectual property. Among the many concerns was the fact that anyone can legally copy an open-source product. Nathan Seidle, founder of Sparkfun Electronics, said worrying about this was just a distraction. “Every day that I worry about somebody copying me, every day that I go after somebody who has copied my design, is one less day that I’m working on the next big thing,” he said.