If you are unfamiliar with Philo Farnsworth's story, you should acquaint yourself with it. It is a fascinating tale of a lone inventor coming up with a brilliant idea, pursuing it to its fruition, then watching, helplessly, as corporate America took full credit, leaving Farnsworth nearly destitute and unknown until after his death in 1971.
At the age of 15, Farnsworth had conceived his fundamental idea and sketched it out for his High School physics teacher. By the age of 20, he had applied for two patents covering the invention. At 22, he had a working camera and television set. It is Farnsworth's ideas that form the basis of all modern televisions.
Of course, many others were also pursuing television. In a society already very accustomed to both radio and movies, it was not a great leap to think of combining the two mediums by transmitting moving pictures along with sound. RCA, under the direction of David Sarnoff and technician Vladimir Zworykin, applied for their own patents and spread their own message about television. By the end of the 2nd World War, most Americans came to know RCA, Sarnoff, and Zworykin as the fathers of television. As Wired puts it, Sarnoff "and his lawyers did to Farnsworth what they'd done to those who had developed key radio inventions but had refused to cooperate with RCA: They launched a legal assault aimed at overturning the patents on appeal, tying up the inventor emotionally and financially for years. The challenges continued for much of the '30s. They slowed the development of television, delayed its introduction to the public, squandered Farnsworth's already thin resources, drove him to drink, and contributed to his development of a bleeding ulcer." Farnsworth battled RCA in court and was eventually vindicated by the USPTO as the sole inventor of television, but "time ran out. Farnsworth's key patents expired in 1947, just a few months before TV sales took off from 6,000 sets in use nationwide to tens of millions by the mid-1950s. RCA captured nearly 80 percent of the market, while Farnsworth was forced to sell the assets of his company."
The patent system couldn't help Farnsworth much then, and it wouldn't help him much now. A patent system will always end up benefitting moneyed interests more than it benefits individuals. Corporate control of the process has never been stronger, yet we see that the more things change, the more they stay the same. If it hadn't been for RCA's lawyering with bogus patents, Farnsworth may have been able to get his invention into consumers hands and reaped the benefits of his labor. Instead, he had to waste years pleading with the government in court against RCA's patent litigation. The patent system was ineffectual in protecting Farnsworth, even though he held valid patents.
Some would argue that the solution to problems like this is to make the patent system even stronger, and make it even easier for patent holders to assert their rights. Yet any such strengthening gives disproportionate muscle to the RCAs of the world, who have more money to throw behind their "patent rights" than any lone inventor ever will. The only way to level the playing field is to reduce the strength of patents, so that individuals like Farnsworth have a right to create equal to that of big corporations. As long as we continue to give patent holders big enough rocks, they will continue to use them to smash the windows of the innocent.
footnote: Farnsworth continued inventing during his later years, focusing on nuclear fusion. The Farnsworth-Hirsch Fusor was the first device to clearly demonstrate any fusion reactions at all, and is still in use today. But because of his prior experience with the patent system, Farnsworth refused to use patents to protect his discoveries, most of which became public domain. However, it is widely feared that some of these discoveries went to the grave with Farnsworth in 1971.