Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Ultimate Patent Troll: George Selden, the Patent Attorney Who Claimed to Have Invented the Automobile

The fix in which modern technology finds itself today as the result of our ill-conceived and smothering patent laws is unfortunately nothing new, but was a battle fought more than a century ago over patent rights to the invention of the automobile.

Thankfully for the future development of the automobile industry, legal common sense only prevailed due to the tenacity of Henry Ford, who prevailed over "virtual" inventor George B. Selden upon appeal, in a story in which the otherwise unknown Selden is the main character.

George Selden was a very smart patent attorney in New York in the days when the automobile was being invented, and he saw where the future was going.

Being a bit of a scientific dabbler himself and thus understanding the vector of technology in his day, he applied for a patent to the USPTO, which unblinkingly granted U.S. Patent No. 549,160 for George B. Selden's "Road-Engine", a "car" which of course was never built and which was a mere patented "idea" and nothing more.

That idea served however under the patent law prevailing then -- and similarly prevailing now --to establish Selden's "patent rights".
 
Selden thereafter attempted to enforce his USPTO-created patent monopoly on automobile manufacturers wherever he could find them. Below is a drawing of his invention. If you can draw, patents are very near.

Selden 1895 Image via Wikipedia
The Selden "Road-Engine"
Selden demanded licensing fees from automobile manufacturers, but some, like Henry Ford, refused to pay, and, after a legal battle lasting 8 years, Ford finally prevailed. The Selden patent had nothing to do with the actual manufacture of cars as they were being built then, or now.

The entire story of the greedy would-be inventor who never actually built one single automobile can be read at the Wikipedia.

George who?
also has a readable account of the Selden story, the man who claimed to have invented the automobile but never built a single car.

Suffice it to say that the entire Selden patent story shows the same sad unresolved weaknesses in patent law interpretation and application that confound industry today and which permit patent trolls who have never manufactured a single product themselves to extort licensing fees from companies who HAVE figured out how to manufacture something and to make a profit doing so, where the alleged "inventor" was unable to do so.

Eolas and NTP could be considered as examples of the many trolling George Seldens dotting the patent landscape today, existing as parasites on the backs of those who actually make the economy run.
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