Theoretical patent / invention concealment situation

I’m writing a fiction in which a character discovers/invents a powerful technology. He wants to use it for humanitarian purposes but is highly distrustful of the government and concerned about what will happen if/when the military gets its hands on it (because it could also be used as a weapon).

Now disregarding any implausibilities (including a person inventing something so powerful on their own in this day and age without anyone else knowing about it), what would such a person do? If he patents it, it’s public record and the military could replicate it, right? So does he want to patent it or not? (he’s not concerned with money, he’s a true humanitarian) Let’s say he sets up a company to offer the use of the technology as a service but he doesn’t reproduce it or distribute it. (for fear of reverse-engineering) Would that work, at least for a time?

Eventually they’ll end up getting their hands on it, of course. And I’m not shooting for ultra-realism, just enough to give the story some remote plausibility. Sorry if this is more of an IMHO than a GQ but I thought I might get more knowledgeable answers here.

The only way I see this working is if the tech is used to achieve a result which is public but the means is kept a trade secret. A hypothetical example would be someone discovering a means to reverse aging. Exactly how it’s done is kept a trade secret, all that the public knows is that you enter the clinic old and walk out young (and the treatment, whatever it is, is done while you’re anesthetized).

If he doesn’t want the money, why would he even consider patenting it? It seems like it can’t possibly do any good for anyone. It prevents people who want to use it for “good” from using it, while simultaneously doing nothing at all to stop China or North Korea form exploiting it militarily.

Yes, it can be used that way.

That’s what I thought, but since he’s obsessed about keeping it out of what he perceives as the wrong hands, I wasn’t sure if a patent would help or hinder to that end. So you’re saying they could exploit it militarily because a patent is publicly available information, right? (I’m not even sure on this point but I assume they are public record). I mean, it would be a legal infringement, but they wouldn’t care.

That’s about it.

Patents are publicly available, indeed they are mostly available on line. I suggest you go and look at a few on Google Scholar to get an idea of what they might contain. A novel innovation on an existing system requires a lot of detail to make it unique, so it will basically need to include all the details needed to manufacture the device. But for something truly novel, as your example seems to be, the details can be much more sketchy. Nonetheless they will probably need to be enough for others to reverse engineer it if they want to.

For example someone might have patented “an explosive device that operates by rapid arrangement of uranium to create a critical mass”. That doesn’t necessarily tell someone how to build a nuclear bomb, but it gives some strong hints. So your character might be able to patent his device without giving away all the details, but he will be giving away enough hints to allow others to replicate it once they know it works.

And if you really did invent a nuclear bomb, countries like China or Korea aren’t likely to refuse to manufacture them just because they are under patent. Militaries are notorious for ignoring intellectual property laws.

A patent is completely out. I think he/she needs to start a business and keep it as a trade secret. The only caveat is that it has to be something that can’t be reverse engineered. Also, the military application should be not very obvious, because when it becomes obvious a military will find a way to get it. It might not be the US military. I’m not sure if the US military has the authority to simply take the technology. I am sure that in a world war type situation, they will.

In fact, giving enough information that it can be reverse-engineered is a requirement for a patent.

As for the other route, how many other people would need to be in on the secret for him to be able to manufacture or apply his device? If it’s just him, or him and his best friend, or maybe even two or three best friends and a few immediate family members, he might be OK. But if he needs a workforce of hundreds of engineers, then somebody’s going to blab.

Regarding the patentability of "powerful technology"in the United States, you may want to look at 35 U.S.C. 181 and its associated regs: 37 C.F.R. 5 et seq. I’m guessing that some of the provisions under ITAR may rear their heads too.

there is one perfectly plausible way to achieve that - keep the “miracle” under wraps and pretend that you are getting above-average results through minor improvements on existing technology.

E.g. we all use Google and we all think (with some justification, probably) that the bulk of the underlying search algorithm is fairly straightforward. Search is something well understood. By contrast, Google Translate is a technology where there are relatively few people competent in the state of the art. So while you could accept Google’s claims that that system is using such-and-such phrase based translation technique, you could also hypothesize that they are secretly connected to a UFO magic artifact that does all the translation for them to a level of quality that is not achievable through known methods (maybe they then deliberately mess the output up a bit to be more believable and so forth).

So if your main character invents the perpetuum mobile and similar, he could likewise just hide it behind a plausibly sounding normal technology. The biggest problem would likely be having his employees observing and figuring out at least part of the situation and spreading rumors.

The only way I think it could possibly stay out of military hands would be if the operation of the completed device somehow deprived all military agencies of all or most of their power.

I second the person that said if he doesn’t care about money, why is he wanting to put it "out there’ anyway?

No one can read his mind, so why not just keep it in there?

Release it into the public domain in it’s entirety, thereby allowing the public to defend themselves against the military.

I believe that the gov’t can classify a patent so that even the inventor cannot see it. I would move out of the US and begin to manufacture it and sell it. Otherwise, they could also ban export just by claiming it is a weapon. Read the history of the RSA encryption algorithm, whose theory is trivial (it essentially goes back to Fermat) and whose implementation, while not trivial, can be carried out by any competent programmer. Nonetheless, the gov’t classified it as a weapon and banned its export. This was fatuous and it was widely implemented elsewhere.

Umm… how is “keeping your brilliant idea a complete secret” not the best idea?

John Wyndham’s The Trouble With Lichen.

There was an interesting piece IIRC in Wired about the US government stealing someone’s idea, despite a patent. Some scientist had invented a type of fiber optic connector that worked well in the deep sea. The evidence is the US government just took the idea, and some secret government agency which shall remain namless (NSA - Nameless Secret Agency) apparently used it. No reason given why the US government would want a lot of deep sea fibre splices and keep it secret…

He sued, and the case was tossed because the government can do whatever it wants, patent or not. So what good is a patent? They didn’t even have to pay for his idea.

This is why I laugh at those 200-mpg carburetor buried by the oil companies" urban legends. If such a thing were possible, wouldn’t the USSR, China, or a myriad other countris use it anyway and ignore the oil company howling? Patents are meaningless in the face of national security.

As for the story - so what? If it’s that obvious, someone somewhere will dream up the same invention within a few years. The world is full of clever people, someone else will have the “aha” moment. Look at the fact that the allies, Germany, and the USSR all were working on the atomic bomb. Nobody was sure it would work, but they all had an idea how it might work. (Funny thing - none of them clued into the idea of dirty bombs, though…) Weapon development is as much arms race as anything - you can’t allow the other side to get ahead by ignoring a technology just because “it would not be right”.

One idea might be to patent a key but incomplete part of the technology, to prevent someone else from using it for the same process. You superman juice is made in a still with a secret process using a special ceramic filter. We’ll patent the filter without disclosing the rest of the process. It might give us a way to head off competitors; however, they can do whatever they want in secret and as long as the process is not for commercial purposes, who would know they copied our filter? We can only sue them if we see them producing a duplicate serum that obviously used the patented filter.

Of course, that still won’t stop the governments of the world.

Kind of reminds me of one of Heinlein’s story, Friday. In it is a device called a shipstone which is basically an unlimited power supply. You can get them small enough to operate a flashlight or large enough to power a space ship.

The inventor never patented it in order to maintain the monopoly. There were a few quirky and closely guarded secrets in the manufacturing process and any attempts to reverse engineer one just left you with a puddle of smelly goo.

Depending on who you ask the shipstone is either some sort of hypercharged capacitor or the zero point energy module from Stargate.

I think it was Asimov who wrote a story about dirty bombs during the time frame of the Manhattan Project. The premise was that the scientists concluded that an actual atomic bomb was impossible, but that they could render an area uninhabitable by covering it with radioactive dust. It could be used either for area-denial, if used someplace that there weren’t already people, or as a direct offensive weapon, against a city or the like.

And speaking of science fiction, Heinlein’s other works that mentioned Shipstones were pretty clear that they were energy storage devices, not energy sources. They would eventually run out, and they could be recharged (repeatedly, and with a high efficiency). And trying to reverse-engineer them generally led to an explosion, not just goo.

Heinlein, actually – Solution Unsatisfactory