Inventions can change our world. 30 years ago, the idea that you could listen to your entire music collection, anywhere in the world, using a gadget not much larger than a credit card, would have seemed far-fetched. Then came the Sony Walkman®. This gave portable music through a tape cassette, and later through a compact disc. The development of affordable solid-state memory and compact hard drives led to the iPod® and other digital audio players, capable of storing not just an album, but a library of albums, or thousands of individual tracks.
Of course, Leonardo da Vinci did not invent such a device, but his original inventive mind imagined the future, from flying machines to hydraulic pumps and a steam cannon. Most of his ideas could not be realised with the technology of the time, but many would eventually become reality in a form that, perhaps, he would recognise if he were to be transported to current time.
IP stands for Imagination Potential – the potential to turn our ideas into reality – and for Intellectual Property – the way in which the fruit of our imagining can be protected. Intellectual Property Rights – Patents, Copyright, Registered Trademarks and the like – exist to encourage creativity by making it possible for the creators of inventions, literature, music, art, new brands and designs to earn some reward. It is sometimes argued that monopolies of any sort are somehow unfair and exploitative, because it is imagined that they only benefit the super-rich. But as an example, many musicians depend on royalties in their works for their day-to-day living.
Thousands of separate inventions, each contributing a small step forward, were involved in the development of the digital audio player. The development of the transistor led eventually to micro-chip devices capable of converting streams of 1s and 0s into high quality sound. Magnetic storage discs and solid state memory have become ever more capacious, while getting physically smaller and smaller. Clever systems have been devised for compressing digital signals without significant loss of content, leading to what we know as mp3 and similar recordings of amazing compactness. Some inventions are perhaps less obvious, but just as important, from the development of synthetic plastics from which the cases are moulded to improved battery technologies, enabling tiny batteries to store enough energy to run the player for hours of listening.
These inventions have all been the subject of patents, limited monopolies giving the developers a chance to benefit from the effort and cost of turning an idea into a practical reality. Patents last for up to twenty years, after which the invention is free for all to use. In this way, each successive development builds on earlier ones, rather than having to “re-invent the wheel”.
Copyright did not exist in Leonardo’s time, but even if it had it would have expired long ago, so his iconic portrait of Mona Lisa, or La Gioconda, is freely reproduced everywhere. Our little film imagines, with the benefit of modern technology, one reason why the painting took so long to complete (He began it in 1503, and is said to have completed it just before his death in 1519, having never delivered it to the original client, a wealthy Florentine silk merchant, the husband of Lisa del Giocondo.)
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