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Technological Obsolesce vs the Public Domain

Secrets of the Sphinx

Did you know that January 1st of every year is considered Public Domain Day, at least in countries that follow the rule of law? On this day the works of authors dead for the past 50 years pass into the public domain. This year our public domain was enriched by such writers, artists, and composers as Nikos Kazantzakis (“Zorba the Greek?), Dorothy L. Sayers (“The Mind of the Maker?), H.P. Lovecraft and many, many others.

Few of these writers that just entered into the public domain were scientists, little lone engineers. Yet significant technology existed back in the late 1930s (author’s death minus 50 years) and before. For example, I remember writing once about the first car-mounted radio telephone invented in the early 20s – “Wirelessly Enabled Cars Come To A Reality Near You.”

Mobile RF Car

Which begs the question: Do technical journal articles abide by the 50 year public domain rule? Such publications have been around since the turn of the early 1900’s. For example, the IEEE was formed from the AIEE (American Institute of Electrical Engineers, formed in 1884), and the IRE (Institute of Radio Engineers, formed in 1912).

It’s a bit of a moot point, since actual technical works – aside from books and articles – become obsolete at an ever increasing rate. The question of technological obsolescence is a fascinating one (see comments by Ray Kurzweil – “The Age of the Spiritual Machines,? Alexander Stille – “The Future of the Past,? Matthew Herber and others), but not one that I want to consider in today’s blog.

Instead, I’m merely curious about the timeframe in which various technologies pass into the public domain. Several years ago, I interviewed Raminda Madurawe, who was then the founder, CEO & President of Viciciv Technology: “The Next Wave of FPGAs.” The interview focused on the effect of expiring Xilinx algorithm patents, which had expired 16 years after the patents were secured.

Is 16 years a typical time frame for technology patents to expire? Yet books on technology “expire? – pass into the public domain – after 50 years from the death of the author. In other words, you could write a book on programmable logic that will not “expire for 50 years. But a key algorithm that enable programmable logic expires after a mere 16 years. Doesn’t make sense, does it? I must be missing something. Can anyone clarify? — JB

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