The US Federal Highway Administration has withdrawn its interim approval of Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons (RRFBs) because a company which makes them has patented them. This is a serious public-policy error. The RRFB has proved effective at increasing compliance of drivers to yield to pedestrians at crosswalks. This is most important at mid-block crosswalks and at the entrances and exits to roundabouts, where no other traffic signal is likely to be present, and the RRFB can be actuated only when a pedestrian is about to cross, minimizing delay.
While it might be possible to patent some refinement to the RRFB, the basic concept is as old as the Belt Beacon, flashing traffic signal, or railroad-crossing beacon. Patenting requires that a device be novel, useful and non-obvious, and I can’t imagine that it would be hard to get around RRFB patents, or invalidate them. But does anyone have the resources to fight these patents? And if that succeeds, it’s a Pyrrhic victory, as it also opens up the market to other competitors. Is the market for RRFBs large enough to get a company to pony up the money for a challenge, in the light of this situation? The patent and FHWA policy have killed the market too, at least in the USA, and where does that leave everyone, not least of all the patent holders? The process is broken.
What can we do to help fix this? An inventor or licensee deserves to profit from the invention, but not only does the FHWA policy prohibit use of this particular device, it also kills innovation generally. Patents are good for 20 years. Is it really acceptable for signals technology to be 20 years behind innovation, which also is stymied by lack of a market?
There has to be a better way, which rewards innovation while preventing one company from cornering the market. I’d be for some form of mandatory cross-licensing of products which are required by statute or regulation. Cross-licensing has worked in industry: prime example: in the 1950s, Ampex developed the quadraplex videotape recorder, and RCA held the patents on color TV technology. Ampex and RCA engaged in “co-opetition”, cross-licensing these technologies, and both were able to market color videotape recorders. This is what is called in highly technical language a “win-win”.But changing the rules probably requires Congressional action.
While we’re at it: a demonstration of co-opetition: the oldest known surviving color videotape recording: President Eisenhower speaks at the dedication of NBC’s new studio in Washington, D.C., May 22, 1958. The show goes into color at 14:50 and the President speaks at 16:30.