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What Are Technical Artefacts in Patent Practice? A Practice-Based Ontology

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Abstract

This essay tackles the question: what are technical artefacts such as the iPhone X or Tesla Model Y? It has a meta-ontological and an ontological part: I argue for a practice-based variant of an ‘easy’ ontology of technical artefacts, and present such an ontology that is based in patent-law practice.

The meta-ontological part focuses on work in analytic ontology. Here, the dominant ‘Quinean’ approach creates strong doubts concerning the very existence of artefacts. Rather than subscribing to these doubts, an alternative meta-ontology is proposed: a practice-based variant of so-called ‘easy’ or deflationist ontologies.

The ontological part is based on basic elements and some specific aspects of patent law, focusing on the European Patent Convention. In this context, technical artefacts, as patentable inventions, are best understood as abstract types, as others have argued for creative works. Distinctive for artefacts are that they are epistemically transparent and practically meaningful—or functional—abstract types.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Sometimes called ‘neo-Quinean’ to indicate differences between the original approach and more recent successors. Since I will largely ignore those here, I use the simpler label.

  2. 2.

    This is not to say that it is impossible to defend the existence of (some, or many) artefacts in a neo-Aristotelean approach, just as neo-Quineanism is not necessarily incompatible with the exjstence of all artefacts.

  3. 3.

    There are close connections to work on ‘conceptual engineering’ (see Thomasson, 2015, Section C.2).

  4. 4.

    This does not hold for the stock examples of conceptual engineering—concepts such as ‘race’ and ‘gender’. However, reconstructions of debates on those concepts as metalinguistic negotiation cannot be extended to debates on the existence of artefacts unless we identify the stakes.

  5. 5.

    It is easy to think of contexts where such statements are meaningfully made about individual smartphones (“Hey, that is my phone!”), less straightforward for statements about kinds of phones.

  6. 6.

    Available at https://www.epo.org/law-practice/legal-texts/epc.html

  7. 7.

    See https://www.epo.org/applying/european/Guide-for-applicants/html/e/ga_aii_2.html for an example.

  8. 8.

    https://www.epo.org/law-practice/legal-texts/html/epc/2016/e/r42.html

  9. 9.

    For this reason, patent databases have been used extensively to study processes of technological change.

  10. 10.

    To be distinguished from objects that would be patentable, but are not patented precisely because of their importance. These include trade secrets, such as the formula of Coca-Cola.

  11. 11.

    Thomasson also claims, in response to objections, that “the makers’ concepts of what features are relevant to membership … are typically superficial” (2007, p. 69). In a patent-based ontology, this claim seems doubtful: features described in a patent application typically go beyond “surface-level characteristics” (ibid.), for instance in specifying mechanisms. Thus, creators’ epistemic access to technical artefacts is more extensive than Thomasson submits, even if it is less privileged.

  12. 12.

    In this, my approach here is not an instance of what has been called “deferentialism”, i.e., the idea that “authoritative disciplines outside philosophy” have a “decisive bearing on philosophical issues” (Daly & Liggins, 2011, p. 321). I do not mean to suggest that the bearing of patent practice will be that decisive: philosophers can and will dismiss any societal practice as insufficiently authoritative to be taken at face value or even to provide any substantial “evidence for philosophical debates” (ibid.). The relation between philosophical debates and societal and scientific practices is, in my opinion, even considerably more complicated than the ‘anti-deferentialist’ suggestion of settling on “the solution that offers the most benefits for the least costs” (ibid., p. 336).

  13. 13.

    My sincere thanks to two anonymous reviewers for very helpful comments and suggestions to clarify or rephrase points in the chapter.

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Correspondence to Wybo Houkes .

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Houkes, W. (2022). What Are Technical Artefacts in Patent Practice? A Practice-Based Ontology. In: Terrone, E., Tripodi, V. (eds) Being and Value in Technology. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-88793-3_1

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