Lilia Manguy busted arse with three teammates for nine months to create a cleverly-designed, well-implemented tool that won an award for outstanding final Masters’ project this year at my alma mater, Berkeley’s iSchool.
What they built has the potential for plenty of social good. The software’s called “iBuyRight” [Web site, Master's project report] and it helps people make purchases aligned with their personal values. When you’re out shopping, you can scan a product’s UPC code using your camera phone, and iBuyRight will display on your phone’s screen information about the product and the firms behind it, how they treat their workers, associated environmental and health concerns, etc.
Now Lilia claims that Dara O’Rourke, a Berkeley assistant professor who suggested that the team implement this idea, is attempting to remove Lilia from the project and take it over. Lilia says O’Rourke’s core justification for this is that he came up with the idea behind the project. She says that, months into the students’ work building iBuyRight, he filed a draft patent application listing himself as sole inventor.
Trouble is, U.S. law requires an invention to be novel and non-obvious before it can be assigned a patent. This idea is clearly not novel, and it’s obvious. People who build mobile devices and software, and people who write about the mobile networked future, have worked over that concept for at least a decade.
Three years ago I wrote about this idea, and I added a disclaimer pointing out that the concept was an old chestnut that countless others had batted around, evolved and improved upon for a long time. I’ve heard of at least three other firms that implemented some variant of that idea.
The overworked and underfunded US Patent and Trademark Office is infamous for granting high-tech patents that violate its own novelty and non-obviousness requirements. It’s ironic that iBuyRight clearly violates one of these illegitimate patents: no. 6,993,573. Such boneheaded patents are no barrier to giant corporations and billionaires, who can afford to contest them. But such patents hurt us all, big corporations included, by blocking off students and small-time, independent inventors from vast realms of innovation.
This seems so clear to me: The value in iBuyRight lies not in the idea but in the user research, the design, the coding, the implementation, and in the expertise and tacit knowledge that Lilia and her team developed while performing that work.
Am I missing something here? Is it fair to say this professor didn’t create that value, was incapable of creating that value on his own, and convinced a group of grad students to do it for him free of charge during the time they were in school?
Lilia said that O’Rourke and his representatives harassed her with demands that she remove her final Masters’ project report and Web site from public view, because O’Rourke intended to patent the concept and wanted to hide the publicly-visible information about it.
Never mind that Lilia’s requirements for graduation prohibit her from doing that; they stipulate that each Master’s project must be posted publicly, and that it must be presented and demoed to the public during a conference at the end of the school year. O’Rourke complained about the great reviews this exposure garnered on widely-read weblogs, telling Lilia that the project needed be kept secret, in “stealth” mode.
Prof. O’Rourke: Are you afraid Yahoo and Google will rush in, suddenly enlightened by “your” idea, to reverse-engineer the project and make it their own? Is that why you’re obsessed with stealth?
Listen: Secrecy and patent applications won’t stop Yahoo or Google or Microsoft or other players from striding up tomorrow and building an “iBuyRight killer.” People at Google and Yahoo discussed your idea before it occurred to you. What’s stopping them from “stealing” it are the thousand other projects they have to worry about and pump resources into. The smart policy for them is to focus on their core businesses and let outsiders take the early exploratory risks, then buy a piece (or more) of the successes.
The iBuyRight team already built real value around this great public-domain idea — and the core of that value lies not in the static lines of software code, but in the people who are experts in the space, who can understand new customers, attract new contributors, connect to strong partners, adapt the software to keep it alive and thriving. That’s the kind of value that big players want to invest in or acquire.
These grad students understand that, and they got iBuyRight off to a great start. That sort of value is hard to steal, but if you bully and mistreat these people, that value will walk away from you. You should thank them for building iBuyRight and for garnering priceless press and street cred. That publicity isn’t a threat, it’s gold.
You should take them all out to dinner and thank them. At Chez Panisse. Tonight.
PS- Below is background on all this; please judge for yourself. (And if you’re involved in this and think I’ve missed or misinterpreted something important here, let me know. If you have a valid point or significant evidence I’ll post it.)
- Lilia’s account of what happened
- The iBuyRight Master’s project report
PS- Readers, you can help keep innovation in this realm open to everyone; post links to prior art (early writings about the idea in question, and implementations of that idea, that preceded iBuyRight) in the comments below. This evidence will help the USPTO in its evaluation of any iBuyRight patent applications.