Jeremy M. Ben-David, Managing Partner, JMB Davis Ben-David
It started out as a regular morning. I was making myself that first cup of coffee – you know, the one whose aroma seems to overpower your just-awakening senses – and then, without warning, Plop!
It was not so much of a plop! sound, but a sight. And there it was again.
Without warning, a tiny ball like object, plopped straight into the white china coffee cup (fortunately, not the one that I was using). As clear as day, several of these dark, speck like objects dropped from the cupboard above the counter straight into the cup. Further inspection showed that there were many more in the cupboard than had yet plopped down. An even closer look showed them to be very much alive, and rather more elongate than round. A quick photograph, a WhatsApp message and a disturbing phone call later, and the exterminator was in our kitchen, decreeing that we had termit-initus. (That’s actually a word that I just made up to describe the sound you have in your head when you can’t get past the ringing thought that you actually have termites in your kitchen!)
For the uninitiated, termites are not nice. They have an appetite for wood, and even in Israel, where most of the house construction is concrete, there is plenty of wood for a hungry termite, to say nothing of thousands of them(!). Oh, and if they have to eat their way through concrete or plaster to get to the wood, that’s all in a day’s destruction. The point is, in the battle for survival between termites and your nice wood furniture (or kitchen cabinets), the termites will always win.
This led me to thinking about the fleeting nature of matter and of that which we create; what do we really need to preserve for posterity? And how?
In this regard, I recall a fascinating report that I heard on BBC Radio about 20 years ago regarding the Queen’s Speech, delivered by the Queen on the first day of the British Parliament, every year. (For centuries now, it has actually not been the Queen’s speech, so much as the Government’s speech, read by the Queen or King, as the case may be). The report focused not on the speech, per se, but on the media, or should I say ‘non-digital media’ from which the speech is read.
Far from being a trivial question, the speech is not simply written on paper, or by use of a word processor, but on vellum, also known as parchment (the stuff made from animal skin, not the paper material misleadingly known as ‘parchment’). The reason for this is simple, and while based on tradition, actually makes perfect sense also in practical terms.
As reported on the BBC, a parliamentary committee was set up in order to decide whether the time had not yet come to move away from the tradition of handwriting the Queens Speech on vellum, and to move it to digital media, as befitted the newly-digital times. The answer – surprising at the time – was No! With the benefit of hindsight, having had 20 more years of digital living (and losing documents to unreadability), we can well appreciate the committee’s answer which was to stay with tradition and to keep writing the speech on vellum. Digital media are unstable, and even if they were not unstable, there’s no guarantee that the hardware and software would be available to read them even 10 years later, let alone 20 or 200! By contrast, a handwritten speech of 200 years old – or even older – has quite survived the test of time.
Interestingly enough, in Jewish synagogues the World over, there can be found Torah Scrolls, some of which are several hundred years old, in which are written the Five Books of Moses, and which are used for public reading once a week. What’s the secret to their legible longevity? They are, of course, written by hand, using ink made according to an ancient recipe, on parchment.
So, I have migrated in my thoughts from termites, that render perfectly solid wooden objects into little more than dust heaps, to vellum or parchment, which enables thoughts and written traditions to avoid sharing the fate of their ever-so-fleeting digital equivalents. And how does this connect to Patents? It’s really quite simple.
A patent is an intellectual right that, given the right circumstances, may result in the accumulation of considerable wealth by its owner. But, on reflection, the enduring value of some patents simply defies numbers. For example, think of the telephone. It’s invention is credited to Alexander Graham Bell who received US Patent No. 174,465 entitled TELEGRAPHY on March 7, 1876. Or consider Patent No. 37435 awarded to Carl Benz for the automobile on January 29, 1886. Or U.S. Patent 821,393, granted on May 22, 1906, to Wilbur and Orville Wright for “new and useful improvement in Flying Machines.”
There is a very long list of past patents whose face value has long since dissipated, together with the expiry of both the patent rights and their owners. The real value of these patents, however, lies in the enduring part that they play in society, and in providing the opportunities that we enjoy today, and the basis on which technology, science and society continue to develop. The above examples are but a small handful, ‘limited’ to communications, travel and transportation. Would these contributions have accrued to our benefit even without the incentive of patent rights, such as in the case of penicillin, which Alexander Fleming decided not to patent? There’s no way of knowing.
But that’s not the point.
We all have ‘things’, real world physical possessions. Some people develop and own patent rights, for which, in some cases they are rewarded handsomely. When all is said and done, if the patent system encourages inventors and those who sponsor them, to benefit society in exchange for what is ultimately, and in relative terms, a pittance, it is clearly society that is getting the better end of the deal.
Don’t you think so?