Friday, 12 March 2004
Blundering through security
It appears the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) has removed the infamous ricin patent (No. 3,060,165) from its online database. The PTO boasts that it provides all patents since 1976 in searchable text and images of patent pages from 1790. Obviously, this is now false. (Via Ernest, via Dan Gillmor, via Bruce Schneier.)
Half the developed world's patent offices make this patent available over the Internet. Considering that the patent was granted in 1965, I think a few paper copies might also exist. Therefore, this is about as effective a security measure as requiring travelers to show a driver's license before they board an airplane — that is to say, wholly ineffective. All this does is inconvenience the law-abiding American public when it tries to do research.
Ernest makes the important point that the fundamental principal underlying our patent system is that inventors get exclusive rights to their inventions in exchange for full disclosure of the invention to the public. This is hardly the first case where the public has been shortchanged in the name of security. Ernest also has the best summary comment thus far (hyperlink original):
Rest assured Senator, the lack of the patent in the US database means that terrorists will never be able to figure out how to make ricin because even web-savvy bloggers can't get the information very easily .... ooops. Never mind.