China’s “Double Whammy for Prospective Entrepreneurs”

(p. B12) China’s past attempts to stoke indigenous innovation have a checkered history. A flood of cheap capital and high, state-set solar power rates in the mid-2000s secured China’s place as the world’s number one solar cell manufacturer. But it also led to enormous overcapacity, which sank prices and pushed debt burdens higher, making investment in real R&D more difficult. For investors, China’s solar champions have been a losing proposition–American depositary receipts of top firms such as JinkoSolar are worth less than half of their peak in 2010. Robotics, a key element of Beijing’s “Made in China 2025” plan to dominate high-tech manufacturing, is exhibiting similar tendencies.
The state-centric nature of China’s financial system–and its weak intellectual property protection–represents a double whammy for prospective entrepreneurs. Small private-sector firms often only have access to capital through expensive shadow banking channels, and face the risk that some better connected, state-backed firm will make off with their designs–with very little recourse.

For the full story, see:
Nour Malas and Paul Overberg. “‘Chinese Innovation Won’t Come Easily Without U.S. Tech.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, March 23, 2018): B12.
(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 22, 2018, and has the title “Can China’s Red Capital Really Innovate?”)

Silicon Valley Firm Defies Disruption

(p. A1) LOS GATOS, Calif.–Companies that resist change don’t tend to last long in the caldron of innovation called Silicon Valley.
Then there’s the Z.A. Macabee Gopher Trap Co.
Founded in 1900 by local barber and inventor Zephyr Albert Macabee to manufacture his patented metal gopher traps, the company is a stickler for tradition.
The traps’ design has remained exactly the same, including their forest green color–despite complaints that the hue makes them hard to spot. Some customers gripe of hitting them with mowers, and have repainted them bright red or other colors. Still, the company doesn’t waver.
Macabee operates out of the same small Victorian house where “Zeph” Macabee started it all on a quiet residential street. Even the packaging—Spartan white boxes of 24–remain unchanged since the postearthquake edition of 1906.
“We have a strong product identity,” says Ronald Fink, the company’s cheerful septuagenarian general manager, who grew up on a nearby apricot farm.
But existential questions loom. The company’s patent expired in 1917. The threat of cheap Asian knockoffs led the company in (p. A10) 2008 to shift all production to China and lay off the eight Cambodian refugees who built traps in the basement on decades-old machines.
Another new competitor has popped up: a pest exterminator named Steve Albano, founder of Trapline Products in Redwood City, who used and studied Macabee traps and came up with what he considers a better design. “I think they just work better,” says Mr. Albano.
. . .
As the owners sort out their differences, copycat traps are flooding the market. Most retail for about a third less than the roughly $9 a Macabee commands, including several that even mimic the forest color.
“But people still buy us, because they know they’re getting quality,” says Mr. Fink.

For the full story, see:
Timothy Aeppel. “Old Time Rodent-Trap Company Doesn’t Gopher Change; At one firm in Silicon Valley, disruption is a dirty word; existential fears after 100 years.” The New York Times (Fri., June 19, 2015): A1 & A10.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the title “Macabee, an Old Time Maker of Rodent Traps, Doesn’t Gopher Change; At one firm in Silicon Valley, disruption is a dirty word; existential fears after 100 years.”)

94-Year-Old Applies for Patent on Slow-Hunch Solid State Battery

(p. 7) In 1946, a 23-year-old Army veteran named John Goodenough headed to the University of Chicago with a dream of studying physics. When he arrived, a professor warned him that he was already too old to succeed in the field.
Recently, Dr. Goodenough recounted that story for me and then laughed uproariously. He ignored the professor’s advice and today, at 94, has just set the tech industry abuzz with his blazing creativity. He and his team at the University of Texas at Austin filed a patent application on a new kind of battery that, if it works as promised, would be so cheap, lightweight and safe that it would revolutionize electric cars and kill off petroleum-fueled vehicles. His announcement has caused a stir, in part, because Dr. Goodenough has done it before. In 1980, at age 57, he coinvented the lithium-ion battery that shrank power into a tiny package.
We tend to assume that creativity wanes with age. But Dr. Goodenough’s story suggests that some people actually become more creative as they grow older. Unfortunately, those late-blooming geniuses have to contend with powerful biases against them.
. . .
Years ago, he decided to create a solid battery that would be safer. Of course, in a perfect world, the “solid-state” battery would also be low-cost and lightweight. Then, two years ago, he discovered the work of Maria Helena Braga, a Portuguese physicist who, with the help of a colleague, had created a kind of glass that can replace liquid electrolytes inside batteries.
Dr. Goodenough persuaded Dr. Braga to move to Austin and join his lab. “We did some experiments to make sure the glass was dry. Then we were off to the races,” he said.
Some of his colleagues were dubious that he could pull it off. But Dr. Goodenough was not dissuaded. “I’m old enough to know you can’t close your mind to new ideas. You have to test out every possibility if you want something new.”
When I asked him about his late-life success, he said: “Some of us are turtles; we crawl and struggle along, and we haven’t maybe figured it out by the time we’re 30. But the turtles have to keep on walking.” This crawl through life can be advantageous, he pointed out, particularly if you meander around through different fields, picking up clues as you go along. Dr. Goodenough started in physics and hopped sideways into chemistry and materials science, while also keeping his eye on the social and political trends that could drive a green economy. “You have to draw on a fair amount of experience in order to be able to put ideas together,” he said.

For the full commentary, see:
Kennedy, Pagan. “To Be a Genius, Think Like a 94-Year-Old.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., APRIL 9, 2017): 7.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date APRIL 7, 2017.)

Jewish Medical Inventor Invested in Human Capital Because That “Could Never Be Taken from Me”

Louis Sokoloff’s son Kenneth authored, or co-authored, important papers on how patents aided invention in the 1800s.

(p. A21) Dr. Louis Sokoloff, who pioneered the PET scan technique for measuring human brain function and diagnosing disorders, died on July 30 [2015] in Washington.
. . .
. . . he leapt at the opportunity when he won a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, guided by his grandfather’s advice.
“He advised me to choose a profession, any one,” he wrote, “in which all my significant possessions would reside in my mind because, being Jewish, sooner or later I would be persecuted and I would lose all my material possessions; what was contained in my mind, however, could never be taken from me and would accompany me everywhere to be used again.”
. . .
Dr. Sokoloff’s wife, the former Betty Kaiser, died in 2003, and his son, Kenneth, an economic historian, died in 2007.

For the full obituary, see:
SAM ROBERTS. “Louis Sokoloff, Pioneer of PET Scan, Dies at 93.” The New York Times (Thurs., AUG. 6, 2015): A21.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date AUG. 5, 2015.)

Patent Holder of Piggly Wiggly Self-Service Method Sued Hoggly Woggly for Infringement

(p. A11) A typical U.S. supermarket carries 42,000 items: Grab a cart, stroll the aisles and help yourself to an extravagant assortment of goods. Today it’s hard to imagine buying groceries any other way. But self-service was a game-changer when Clarence Saunders opened the first Piggly Wiggly in Memphis, Tenn., 100 years ago this month.
Before then a shopper would hand his grocery list to a clerk, who would fetch the merchandise while the customer lingered up front. That might sound appealing in this era of big-box stores with no help in sight, but at busy times the wait could stretch uncomfortably long.
Saunders, a school dropout who worked as a flour and grain salesman, had observed firsthand the inefficiencies of the rural grocers he supplied. Many of these stores, he became convinced, failed for two reasons: credit losses from customers’ charge accounts (which were then customary), and labor costs from clerks and delivery boys.
. . .
Eager to protect his invention, Saunders applied for multiple patents. His first, for a “Self Serving Store,” was granted in 1917. It wasn’t long, though, before imitators like Handy Andy and Helpy Selfy made their debut. Saunders successfully sued an especially brash copycat, Hoggly Woggly, for infringement.
. . .
Saunders didn’t integrate circuits or sequence the human genome. An observer once noted that coming up with a self-service grocery was “as simple as looking out the window or scratching your ear.” Still, it was Saunders who gambled on the unconventional approach, doggedly spread self-service across the nation and shaped the grocery industry we know today.

For the full commentary, see:
JERRY CIANCIOLO. “The Man Who Invented the Grocery Store.” The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., Sept. 8, 2016): A11.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Sept. 7, 2016.)

The only book I could find about Clarence Saunders, is:
Freeman, Mike. Clarence Saunders and the Founding of Piggly Wiggly: The Rise & Fall of a Memphis Maverick. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2011.

Taylor Swift Defends Intellectual Property Rights

(p. A11) In battles against tech titans, Chinese e-commerce swindlers and others, Ms. Swift has repeatedly insisted on being paid for her music and brand–and in the process has taught some valuable lessons in basic economics.
. . .
Last year she picked a fight with Apple after the company announced plans to launch its Apple Music streaming service with a three-month trial period during which users wouldn’t pay subscription fees and Apple wouldn’t pay royalties for the songs streamed.
. . .
Ms. Swift had less luck trying to get the Spotify streaming service to restrict her songs to paying customers, so in 2014 she pulled her catalog from the platform entirely. Her manager said Spotify’s royalty payments are miserly compared with regular album revenues: “Don’t forget this is for the most successful artist in music today. What about the rest of the artists out there struggling to make a career?”
Ms. Swift’s most ambitious crusade may be in China, where she has launched branded clothing lines with special antipiracy mechanisms to combat rampant counterfeiting on e-commerce sites like Alibaba’s Taobao. Said one of the branding executives leading the effort: “It’s time for Chinese companies to say, ‘We don’t want to be known for piracy anymore.’ ” Good luck with that.

For the full commentary, see:

DAVID FEITH. “In Support of Taylor Swift, Economist.” The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., July 21, 2016): A11.

(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 20, 2016.)

Were Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson Copyright Trolls?

Sometimes all those who own patents as investments are derisively chastised as “patent trolls.” I have argued that some of those so-labelled are productively increasing the funding for invention. If Nathan Myhrvold is a patent troll then we should similarly view Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson as copyright trolls. Why do McCartney and Jackson get a pass, while Myhrvold is chastised?

(p. B3) It is one of the twice-told tales of the music business: Decades ago, Michael Jackson received some sound investment advice from Paul McCartney.

Back in the early 1980s, Mr. McCartney showed his friend a notebook full of songs he owned, by artists like Buddy Holly. The real money, Mr. McCartney suggested, was in music publishing, the side of the business that deals with the songwriting rights for big catalogs of songs. As Mr. McCartney himself has told it, Jackson perked up and said, “I’m gonna buy your songs.”
He did. And it was the smartest deal Jackson ever made.
In 1985, Jackson bought the ATV catalog, which included 251 Beatles songs, along with a few thousand others, for $47.5 million. It proved to be Jackson’s most valuable asset, helping to finance a lavish lifestyle even as Jackson’s own musical career reached a low point in the years before his death in 2009.

For the full story, see:
BEN SISARIO. “McCartney’s Tip Pays Off for Jackson’s Legacy.” The New York Times (Weds., MARCH 16, 2016): B3.
(Note: the online version of the story has the date MARCH 15, 2016, and has the title “Paul McCartney’s Tip to Michael Jackson Pays Off.”)

My paper on patents, is:
Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. “Seeking the Patent Truth: Patents Can Provide Justice and Funding for Inventors.” The Independent Review: A Journal of Political Economy 19, no. 3 (2015): 325-55.