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How Polaroid founder Edwin Land changed the patent system to one we rely on today

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Companies such as Apple rely on patents to protect technology from infringers. This is something that Edwin Land, who saw the patent system as a means to foster innovation, would have been happy with given his life-long support of the patent system.

When he was but 19 years old in 1929, Land filed for his fist patent. The “sheet polariser” he created would reduce the glare of car headlights. By 1991, he was the owner of 535 patents, beaten only by Edison and Elihu Thomson, whose companies merged in 1892 to form General Electric.

By the time he retired in 1982, Land reflected on a basic trait in himself and other scientists who were inventors: “As I review the nature of the creative drive in the inventive scientists that have been around me, as well as in myself, I find the first event is an urge to make a significant intellectual contribution that can be tangibly embodied in a product or process.”

He was also a great advocate of the importance of research. “I believe quite simply that the small company of the future will be as much a research organisation as it is a manufacturing company, and that this new kind of company is the frontier for the next generation,” he stated

There are many things to be learned from Land, as was cited by Carl Johnson, non-executive chairman of the Board of Nautilus, who had the pleasure of meeting Land. 

Read more about the patent system in the news:

“He talked about the tenets by which he led the company,” Johnson revealed. “It was these tenets and the deep emotional conviction behind them that made the greatest impression on me. Three were most important to me, and all three were tenets that [Steve] Jobs also followed.

“The first was Land’s belief that a ‘true business’, which I understood to mean a successful business, should be the ‘intersection of art and science’. He explained that everything he did or wanted the company to do needed to reflect and embody this intersection. Not only did this extend to the design of Polaroid’s products and the culture of the company, it also extended to advertising.

“The second tenet was that ‘the ideal business is composed of managers and dreamers, and it is the responsibility of the former to protect the latter’. The dreamers, of course, are the innovators who disrupt the established order and in fact provide the fuel for capitalism and value creation in a free enterprise environment. Land himself sometimes had to be the dreamer, but recognised that it often took multiple dreamers to bring about a great invention. He also knew that a leader has to protect those dreamers and ensure that his managers do so also, especially in established companies where the foundational principle is usually one of continuity, not one of discontinuity, which is the hallmark of an innovator.

“The third tenet was ‘when the facts come home to roost and they are not what you expected, reach out and embrace them anyway.’ This was the scientist in him speaking. He did not expect everything to work all the time. This is the nature of experimentation. You fail, you learn why and then you try again. You do not hide your failures or mistakes. You embrace them so you can move forward smarter next time and raise the success odds. “

But what truly set him apart was how he championed the patent.

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In the early 20th century, the patent was deemed “a problem” as it became the preserve of large companies looking to amass monopolies in their field. Due to this, the Patent Office issued fewer patents and declared more invalid.

Land was invited by the Patent Law Association in 1959 to address the situation in front of numerous lawyers and federal judges and delivered what would become one of the most-cited speeches.

He said: “It should be the role of our patent system to bring encouragement, a sense of reward, and a stimulus to prompt publication to men [and women] in applied science. There are a thousand new fields ready to be opened. Only a handful of these will be explored by large corporations, leaving many areas untouched. Without the protection of the patent system, young scientific entrepreneurs cannot be counted on to develop the rest.”

This still stands true today.

An article in The Atlantic detailed that the patent community “received Land’s speech with great enthusiasm”, noting, “General Electric’s general patent counsel called it ‘the most impressive and significant statement on this subject that has been made in many years’.” 

In Ronald Fierstein’s “A Triumph of Genius: Edwin Land, Polaroid, and the Patent War”, great emphasis is placed on Polaroid’s patent-infringement lawsuit against Kodak.

In 1976, Kodak launched a camera similar to that of Polaroid, which would allow photos to instantly be developed. Of course, the company sued, leading onto a trial that eventually found Kodak guilty of violating several patents.

Fierstein explained that this court case was “a significant turning point in US corporate law”.

Kodak sought to have the entire Polaroid patent portfolio declared void on the basis that it was wrongfully, and repeatedly, re-patenting inventions. Essentially, however, Polaroid’s victory shifted the system back to a pro-patent era, one that companies such as Apple rely on today.

It is ironic then that Land’s business became obsolete by the digital revolution that made Jobs such a success, contributing to Polaroid’s bankruptcy in 2011.

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