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”:http://news.ft.com/servlet/ContentServer?pagename=FT.com/StoryFT/FullStory&c=StoryFT&cid=1077690801766&p=1045050946495 [sub])

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