Many years ago, I conceived and built an instrument that I called Bentwood Chalumeau. It was a type of glisssando clarinet, a precursor of the instrument that I now call ‘moe which can be seen in this site’s instrumentarium. It had an unusual pitch control system, which prompted a couple of people to say to me when they saw it, “Are you gonna patent that?” I knew without having to give it much thought that I wasn’t going to seek a patent; patenting wasn’t really my thing. But later someone said “Even if you don’t want to actually patent it, perhaps you could do preliminary a patent search just to see what there is to see. Then use that experience as the starting point for an article to appear in the Experimental Musical Instruments journal on the topic of patenting for musical instruments.” At that time I was always looking for interesting ideas for EMI articles, and when I heard this suggestion I said to myself, “hmmm…”
In those days you couldn’t do a patent search online. You had to go to a patent library. So I made a couple of pilgrimages down to the south bay area where the nearest patent library was to see if anyone had ever patented a similar instrument, and to get a feeling for the patenting process. I also enlisted a patent lawyer, who generously worked pro bono to educate me and alert me to important issues, and to read, critique and correct the article-to-be.
Well, there’s nothing new under the sun, and of course when I got into the search I found that several people had made and patented instruments related to my idea, though not identical. Whether the bentwood chalumeau would ultimately have proven to be patentable I was not able to conclude; the prospect seemed dubious but not inconceivable. But the whole exploration was a fascinating experience. The patent library is a fulsome repository of the hopes and dreams of people one will never meet, and much of what’s to be found there is wonderfully improbable and impractical – particularly some of the very early patents, with bonus points for being in an offbeat field like musical instruments. Pretty wacky, some of them! Many of the patent drawings are marvelous, and the language, though often abstruse, is sometimes oddly charming in its awkward formality. Along the way I saw a lot of intriguing instrument ideas that, as far as I know, never saw commercial success.
The article “Patenting for Musical Instruments” eventually appeared in Experimental Musical Instruments Volume VI #6, April 1991. Unsurprisingly, I came away from the experience confirmed in my feeling that, in most cases, patenting is not the way to go for inventors of new musical instruments. The promise it might seem to hold will too often will prove hollow. For one thing, when it comes to commercial ideas with big money-making potential, experimental musical instruments don’t exactly lead the pack: if the product to be patented is a new instrument, then the chances that it will ever justify economically the cost and effort of patenting are probably pretty slim. There’s also the matter of patent enforcement: police departments don’t send their swat teams after suspected patent infringers. Instead the burden of enforcement falls to the patent holder him- or herself, working through the courts. Once again, the cost and effort seems questionable when the financial rewards are likely to be so small.
Patenting is only one way to claim ownership of an idea and to keep at bay others who might want to copy it. Among other options, you can depend on trade secrets (prevent others from copying by keeping necessary information or techniques under wraps).
But then again, rather than trying to enforce one’s sense of ownership of an idea, it seems so much nicer – and usually more practical, realistic, and, yes, rewarding — to just be open and share.
That statement sounds trite. But you need only look to the current movement reflected in terms like intellectual commons or information commons to find the idea widely validated. True, it’s not always possible to live by the ideal of shared intellectual property: if you believe you have a financial interest to protect, then you might feel compelled to take a territorial attitude. But if you’re not so compelled, then my suggestion is, just be happy that someone appreciates your idea enough to want to copy it.
So if you explore the instrumentarium in this web site, and if you see there an idea you like, please feel free to borrow. I’ll be grateful if you credit me where appropriate, but in any case I won’t complain. Be it understood, by the way, that very few of my ideas are truly original anyway — in fact, it’s fair to say that none are. Like all human endeavors they lean heavily on the work of earlier inventors and makers, both ancient and modern. As my visits to the patent library showed, even in cases where one thinks one’s ideas to be original, it usually turns out that others have already explored the territory.
If you do try out something you see in my instrumentarium, I hope you’ll let me know about it. This has been one of my great pleasures over many years spent exploring ideas for new instruments: seeing other people taking ideas I’ve worked on, spreading them, sharing them, developing them, and often doing a better job with them than I have.