Willard Boyle, the Nobel prize and patentable subject matter

Receipt of a Nobel prize for some portion of your life’s work and most likely passion is an undeniably large accomplishment.  It is probably the pinnacle of recognition for your contribution to the body intellect.  It is of course also a source of national pride for the country from which the recipient was born.  This is no different for Willard Boyle and Canada.  One of our own was recognized for his contribution in the field of physics and more particularly in the field of Charge Coupled Devices or CCDs.  Dr. Boyle performed his research at AT&T Bell Labs, which is those days was well regarded for its fundamental physics research.

CBC Radio provided commentary into the relevance of the Nobel Prize today.  They suggested the Nobel prize is still quite relevant as it recognizes fundamental work that is not simply associated with patentable material.  It was certainly implied that anything patentable is somehow of lesser value.  This is simply not true as fundamental research and patentable subject matter both have their place and value. 

how do they fit together?

The fundamental discoveries for which a Nobel prize is given might explore a basic physical concept or relationship.  Invention then builds on top of these discoveries, developing systems and methods that are applications or derivatives of the basic understanding.  It is this layer of inventing, lying on top of fundamental discoveries, that develops the building blocks for products from which the public draws benefit and pleasure.  Patents have been a part of this ecosystem for some 500 years. 

Digging back into the records of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, one finds numerous patents issued to Willard Boyle during his time at AT&T Bell Labs.  Of these United States Patent 3,792,322, entitled “Buried Channel Charge Coupled Devices” and 3,796,927, entitled “Three Dimensional Charge Coupled Devices” appear to directly stem from the recognized CCD research.  The former is directed to problems associated with surface states and the latter is directed to shift registers and other logic circuits that might be built from CCDs.  Straightaway one sees solutions to problems in or applications of the systems of the initial discovery.

Thus, fundamental research and patentable subject matter each have their place, with the latter building on the former.