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Kane Kramer is credited with inventing the digital audio player in 1979 (wikipedia.org)
68 points by terhechte on Oct 21, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 27 comments

I am a Wikipedian. Wikipedia articles like this are frequently used to argue legal claims outside the court system. The sources of this article are exceptionally poor (a tabloid newspaper notorious in Britain for sensational articles) and not adequate to the task of demonstrating the claim in the submission here (which is NOT the original article title, contrary to the HN site guidelines).


I'm flagging this submission in the interest of keeping better quality articles on the HN front page. If there is really some factual basis for the claim in the submission title, there should be much better sources to submit.

I originally read about this guy in a better researched article in a well known German newspaper magazine (well, in their online version). But since the original article was German, I couldn't really post it here, still found the whole story interesting though. I also thought that fellow hackers might be interested in this tale. So I searched a bit, and the best thing I could find was the Wikipedia site. You're right though, it lacks sources.

For what it's worth, here's the link to the original German article. http://einestages.spiegel.de/s/tb/25583/kane-kramer-erfinder...

Here's a related Wired article from 2008: http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2008/09/briton-invented/

Edit: At the time, it looked fishy. I did some digging, & it looked plausible enough: http://www.metafilter.com/74747/The-Birth-of-the-Ipod#225151...

> However, in 1988 a boardroom dispute within Kramer's company and the subsequent failure to raise the £60,000 required to renew the patent resulted in the patent lapsing and the designs entered the public domain.

So he couldn't get a product to market within 9 years (many more actually, since just because he lost the patent does not mean he wouldn't be able to produce a player). Seems like the patent system sort of worked here in the end. It would be much worse if he would still be holding the patent and could collect revenues/damages from everyone producing MP3 players today.

The patent systems idealistic idea is to protect the inventor from the big guys that copy his idea, because he himself does not have the necessary capital to manufacture the product.

The patent system certainly didn't work here, even if the outcome is better than if it did.

No, the point is to foster innovation by providing a limited time monopoly to the original inventor (whether that actually works is of course a different question...), so that he can start manufacturing his product and have a decent shot at getting a profit from it.

He got a chance, but failed to make anything out of his idea, and years later other guys came along with the same idea. They most likely didn't really "copy" him, they came up with the idea independently --- a digital audio player is quite a natural evolution of, say, a Walkman. This time, some companies managed to bring a product to the market. There's no reason why they should pay him.

The patent system worked.

The time-limited monopoly is part of the deal, yes, but the ultimate goal is to prevent invention from being kept secret. The monopoly is granted specifically in return for the (eventual) public availability of the invention. The reason behind the restrictions (obviousness, the existence of prior art, etc.) is that no public good can be obtained in exchange for the monopoly award.

Somewhere along the line, the idea that patents are meant to serve the public good seems to have gotten lost...

What I find the most interesting (or rather sad) here, is that this kind of feels like a legitimate case for a technological patent because this guy invented the electronics, and foresaw a distribution mechanism just like iTunes, even some kind of DRM. And just here the patent system fails, because he wasn't able to pay the 60.000 pounds to extend the worldwide patents.

Wasn't the patent system originally devised for protecting businesses like his? Small companies trying to be innovative and trying to compete with the big guys.

This guy seems like a role model of what the patent system was designed for, and just (or even) there it fails.

Also, 8mb in 1984 sounds like a lot of memory. I wonder what storage mechanism / technology he used.

It would be sad if it were true. But there are too many parts of this story that make no sense and therefore make me doubt its veracity:

- US patent was granted in 1987 and maintenance fees must be paid 3.5, 7.5 and 11.5 years after that i.e. first fees due in 1991; UK patent was granted in 1985 and maintenance fees must be paid 4, 5, 6, etc years after that, i.e. first payment in 1989. So why the hell does a 1988 boardroom dispute result in being unable to pay the small fees required 1 and 3 years later?

- nevermind the chronology, if you have 60 million pounds worth of orders then getting a bank manager to loan you 60,000 pounds for licensing fees is a simple matter; he probably didn't actually have 60 million pounds of orders (there's no citation in the article for verifying this claim either)

- whatever number of orders he did have were clearly not enough to convince banks or investors to pony up the 60k required; now, if he didn't have enough orders in 1989, when the UK maintenance fees became due, which was 3 years after the trade show in 1986, the real problem must be he didn't run his business properly, not patent maintenance fees

- or maybe the 60k wasn't really the full extent of the business's financial issues; either way there's only 2 possibilities here: his product didn't deliver what it claimed to and so he couldn't raise the funding he required, or the product was fine but he ran the business poorly

Reading between the lines, what's sad in this story isn't the patent system, it's the lack of business acumen required to take a product to market. Had the patent been extended it's unlikely he would have been commercially successful (other than perhaps to peddle the patent onwards, which isn't what people seem to be defining as success here) because the problem wasn't a matter of time, it was one of business strategy and execution.

I talked to a lawyer (who is also my friend) about the patent system in Germany. I confronted him with the argument that patents cost so much money and small businesses/normal people cannot afford patents. He then said that this is true but you don't have to pay so much in most cases because of a trick: You can send the patent agency your patent paper and tell them to not evaluate it. They have to archive it for up to seven years and you only have to pay about 500 Euros for this. Assuming your papers are valid you can claim your "patent" at some point during the next seven years. If someone else files the same paper he is out of luck because you filed it first but without letting the agency evaluate it. I don't know if this is true (I trust my friend in that regard) and it does not help everyone in every situation but in may come in handy. Is anybody here who knows if this is actually the case?

In the US, you can file a provisional patent which will lock-in the filing date for up to one year. http://www.uspto.gov/patents/resources/types/provapp.jsp

There is also a backlog for patents in certain technologies, so after you file, you may have to wait for a several years before you need to "prosecute" the patent.

And what about prior art? For example, you actually release a digital audio player but don't pay for the patent because you cannot afford it — you cannot be sued and somebody else can't claim a patent over it. Supposedly. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prior_art

One of my professors told me this:

In case you have a good idea you can simply write it down, print it out, sign it and send it to yourself via certified paper mail. When you receive the mail you don't open it. You simply put it in a safe place. Then you can use this to prove prior art because its more or less a official document according to the (German) law. Again: I am not a lawyer and this may be totally wrong...

I filed a provisional patent app in '96 for a "presence protocol" based decentralized personal networking governed by a social model. I ran into the same precise issue and must sheepishly admit permitted it to get the better of me and abandoned it. Watching the likes of FB, G+ et al these past few years has been a somewhat bitter experience. :)

I guess the silver lining is that I am in possession of government stamped receipt confirming prior art in this domain.

I think this argues rather strongly against patents. After all, if you didn't publish it and someone else came up with it independently several times over then clearly that counts as anecdotal support for ideas having a way of re-surfacing many times until the time is ripe.

The fact that you thought of it first - assuming you did, because there may be many more people like you, some of those may have had the idea even earlier - should not give you a right to a slice of someone else's pie.

(They haven't fully caught up with me yet.)

Further note I have no interest in taking a slice of anyone's pie. If I did, I would not be discussing this matter here with you; I would have taken my lawyer's advice. The only (hypothetical) interest at this point would have been to defend against a patent in this domain.

... unpublished prior art.

USPTO doesn't count? I've been wondering about that. What do you suggest? Scan it and publish it?

See 35 U.S.C. 102.

Thanks for the link. Looks like PPA's don't count. C'est la vie.

I would not surprised if _hundreds_ of people have "invented" a fully digital media-free audio player years or decades before Apple perfected it into a consumer device.

This is a world of billions of people. Billions. The romantic idea of one man/woman inventing something - without another man/woman inventing the same unknowingly - is just not realistic for most things.

I had a conversation about the idea in 1987. Hell! In 1993 me and a group at a company were spitballing ideas for the video technology we had and came up with a home DVR. Hard drives were not quite up for the task for that so the idea got shelved.

To quote Heinlein:

“When railroading time comes you can railroad—but not before.”

I found the link to Bubble memory (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bubble_memory) in that article fascinating. I never thought that memory could work like that. The tutorial is also useful: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/How_bubble_memory_works

> Kramer also says he has plans that would end copyright infringement altogether, however no details on this project have been released.

This statement is what caught my eye. Kind of ironic though.

That statement in particular makes him sound kind of like a crank.

And looking at his website agrees, he's stuck in the past and doesn't even have a photo if his device. Wikipedia claims he made prototypes that worked, so I would have thought that he would show off an actual working unit instead of a sketch.

I suspect he just never got it to work. And as others have said a digital music player was very likely conceived and invented by many people. The whole world was going digital in the 80's/90's everything from clocks to cameras to toasters to tv, so the little Walkman was an obvious stepping stone to a digital music player.

Apple didn't even invent the digital music player, they just put a click wheel on their design which was better than the competitions interface and the rest is history...

As an anecdotal aside, i went to see the new nano in the sf apple store and noticed that its in the back and I was the only person looking, on a very busy Saturday afternoon. I think the digital music player has finally reached its newspaper moment. The abundance of smartphones has made p&s cameras, watches and portable muaic players unnecessary. To to mention GPS navigation systems, atlases, encyclopedia...

Nano sales should pick up around Xmas time, because those seem to be what parents give to kids instead of smart phones (source: my wife is a 4th grade teacher and a bunch of kids seem to have them).

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