Pepys and patents

Another instance of an excessive grant of patent bq. Consider the US patent granted recently to International Business Machines for a “smooth-finish” auction, an auction that is programmed to end at a random time. Perhaps this sounds like just the kind of original idea that patents were designed to protect. But the patent examiners appear not to have read Samuel Pepys, the 17th-century British diarist, who describes the Admiralty’s auction of two ships by a “candle” auction. Candle auctions end when a candle goes out, or when a pin pushed into the candle falls out because enough wax has melted. They have been used for centuries and while, as Pepys noted, some candles expire at fairly predictable times, it requires neither much imagination to consider making an auction’s ending time less predictable, nor much computing skill to programme this randomness. (Paul Klemperer in the “Financial Times”: [sub])

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