Objectifying IP

Rob Tannen
7 min readSep 17, 2019

Reviewing A History of Intellectual Property in 50 Objects

A History of Intellectual Property in 50 Objects

With the season tapering to a close I’ve finally finished my “light” summer reading — a 400+ page collection on intellectual property. Published earlier this year, A History of Intellectual Property in 50 Objects (which I’ll affectionately refer to as HIP50 for brevity), is a highly readable history of significant human-made objects from the perspectives of technology, and intellectual property. It’s a terrific and approachable read on IP and its impact on culture that I strongly recommended.

Similar in format to some of my favorite design books such as Wiliam Lidwell’s Universal Principles of Design and Deconstructing Product Design, HIP50 is a series of essays by various authors, each focusing on a particular object. The essays are sequenced in chronological order covering a span of nearly one thousand years. The range of objects is quite diverse, including printed works, fashion, cartoon characters, medications, sports equipment, and recording media, to name a few. Diverse, but by no means random, as the selections all demonstrate valuable cultural and legal impact.

Editors Claudy Op Den Kamp and Dan Hunter have Australian roots, giving a slightly Aussie slant to the choices, including essays on the development of Australia’s currency, the Qantas airline Skybed, and the Maori-influenced design of Mike Tyson’s tattoo (I know, New Zealand is not Australia). The collection also examines the impact of IP and technology on gender in society, with essays on the corset, the oral contraceptive pill, and Viagra. For some insight on how objects were selected check out the Ipsum Dixit podcast interview with Op Dem Kamp, where you can also access a sample of the essays from the book

As a written work, the book is relatively consistent given a large number of contributors. Not to say each essay reads the same, but the editors have successfully imbued each topic with a thoughtful balance of information. To be clear, this is not meaningful content for those without any understanding of IP, but those with just a basic knowledge of its core components (i.e. patents, copyrights, trademarks) will be able to follow. In fact, the relatively limited depth of IP law discussions might be considered a weakness. But given the succinct format and broad perspectives of the work, this is not too surprising. Additionally, each essay concludes with references for further reading, so they should be seen as a starting point

As a designed object itself, the book is physically substantial and visually interesting. Beyond its multi-hued cover, each essay has an accompanying set of images, that are not always obvious or direct. For example, Maurizio Borghi’s coverage of the piano player roll as an early music reproduction technology includes a photo of a dog wearing a player piano Halloween costume. A later chapter by Robin Wright on the audio cassette includes a still of actor John Cusack holding up a boombox from the film Say Anything.

Each object’s essay is contextualized by a key, indicating its time period, intellectual property areas and country of origin. Thus, Salvatore Ferragamo’s wedge shoe design is categorized by Modern Times, Patent, and Italy. The book’s introduction suggests that readers utilize these indicators to guide their choice of essays.

I chose to read cover to cover, but I have also curated a subset that fits my particular interest in the areas of design, software and technology patents. In a book of this broad of scope, I would have expected at least one representative of our most prolific objects, digital user interfaces — for example, a smartphone display, videogame or glass aircraft cockpit. This is a noticeable absence for the collection, but there is still value in reading about other objects that have been covered for history, context, and parallels.

Accordingly, here are my recommended essays (with chapter numbers in parentheses) and their respective authors for those with an interest in user experience IP. Not surprisingly, this leans towards more contemporary inventions, but also includes earlier objects that foreshadow some of the issues we see today:

The Pre-Modern Period

· Murano Glass Vase, Stefania Fusco — describes the history of patents themselves, through the development of protection for craftsmen and inventors starting in 15thcentury Venice.

The Age of Invention

· Morse Telegraph, Adam Mossoff— referred to as the “Victorian internet”, the telegraph launched the era of global, instantaneous communication that we associate with modern technology. First patented in 1840, its success was partly due to the co-invention of Morse code (i.e. dots and dashes), which Mossoff insightfully parallels with “the modern union of software and hardware in computers and smartphones.”

· Singer Sewing Machine, Lionel Bently — considered the first mass consumer appliance, sewing machines had a transformative effect on the daily lives of average people. From an IP perspective, Bentley discusses how competing technology companies pooled and licensed core technologies with each other. There were so-called patent wars within the 19th-century American sewing machine market, where the “chief protagonists of the wars eventually formed a ‘patent pool’, or cartel, where each was licensed to use the pooled patents to make its own style of sewing machine.”

· A.G. Bell Telephone, Christopher Beauchamp — The litigation surrounding Bell’s 1876 patent submission is among the book’s most intriguing stories, going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Beauchamp embodies the value of IP in his closing line — “the single most important object in the invention of the telephone was not the fragile machine of Bell’s first telephone call; it was his patent.”

· Kinetoscope, Peter Decherney — the Kinteoscope, a personal motion-picture viewing device invented by Thomas Edison ultimately failed but foreshadows our contemporary digital video viewing experiences. As Decherney describes, “optimized for personal viewing of short movies, anticipated 21st-century phones and YouTube videos.”

The Consumption Age

· Lego Brick, Dan Hunter & Julian Thomas — beyond a universal children’s toy, the evolution of Lego’s IP strategy is a lesson followed by modern companies that balance technological and branding assets. As its patents expired, Lego successfully “went from an engineering-based toy company that focused on protecting its bricks using patent designs and copyright law; and end up a transmedia company skilled at trademarks and licensing.”

· RAM-Chip, Jake Goldenfein — with its fundamental role in the development of computers, RAM-Chip patents are essential, but their impact on copyright law is more noteworthy. By design, chips hold a copy, even if only momentarily, of whatever content they store — potentially enabling copyright infringement at a massive scale and accelerated pace. Known as the “RAM reproduction doctrine”, a series of legal decisions managed this challenge via a shift in the architecture of property rights, “away from users getting a material copy of a work, to merely getting access to that work for a limited time.”

The Digital Now

· Post-it Note, Stavroula Karapapa- it seemed odd to find the ubiquitous Post-It note grouped within the digital section, but it has made the transition between the physical and digital realms via a patented mobile app “designed to support digital representation of sticky notes.”

· Betamax, Julian Thomas — Sony’s Betamax platform first enabled the time-shifting of content viewing that we take for granted today, and was at the center of the 1984 Sony Corp of America vs Universal Studios, Inc. Supreme Court decision that paved the way for digital freedoms. The decision found that home recording “was a form of fair use, and as a result the technology companies that supplied the recording equipment were not responsible for any infringement.” While the specific Betamax format was not a long-term commercial success, “it’s not the objects that matter, but what we do with them.”

· 3D Printer, Dinusha Mendis — echoing many of the issues brought up by predecessor technologies such as photocopiers and video recorders, for 3D printers the heart of the IP is the information that drives the printer, so that “protecting the software and design file is, therefore, just as important as the hardware.”

· Qantas Skybed, Mitchell Adams — the competition for premium airline travelers provides the book’s most direct and detailed discussion of design patents, “a much-misunderstood area of intellectual property for many years.” Airline seat design becomes an interesting forum for design law, as by nature, they cross multiple international jurisdictions daily. Adams describes the growth of design protection within this particular industry, but it can be viewed more generally as the “rise of modern design practices has therefore led to strategic behaviors from business around the use of intellectual protection.”

· Bitcoin, Primavera De Filippi- this discussion of Bitcoin, and more broadly, blockchain, is the collection’s most compelling. Ironically, it’s in these final pages that we actually get a definition of intellectual property, and it’s a controversial one — “a legal layer of artificial scarcity imposed over specific types of information, in order to facilitate the trading of those information goods.” This section also looks ahead to the impact of blockchain on IP and “the dichotomy, between blockchain technology as a regulatory technology and its potential use as an unregulatable technology”, serving as a bookend with the origin of patents discussed in the Murano Glass Vase.