At the end of December, Emeritus Professor Kazuo Yamafuji of Tokyo’s University of Electro-Communications had something interesting to add to the buzz of talk about the Segway Human Transporter, the self-balancing robotic scooter unveiled earlier in the month by U.S. inventor Dean Kamen.
The basic elements of the Segway, Mr. Yamafuji said, had actually been invented by himself and his colleagues back in 1986. These included its two-wheeled, single-axle design and the stabilizing mechanism device that keeps it from tipping over. The Japanese team did not, however, go so far as to develop their inventions into a transportation device, although their small, self-balancing, riderless “parallel bicycle” was granted a patent in Japan in 1996.
Mr. Yamafuji said that he does not plan to mount a legal challenge to the new product, which has been patented in the United States (the Japanese team’s achievements were acknowledged in the Segway application, as required by law). Nor did he want money, other than maybe “a dollar, with Mr. Kamen’s autograph on the bill . . . for recognition.” He did not envisage building a competing product. All he wanted, he said, was public credit for having come up with the basic technology first: “It’s a matter of pride for me as a Japanese scientist.”
That was some three weeks ago. Interestingly, Mr. Yamafuji’s initial remarks, made to local reporters, caused not a single ripple in the U.S. or anywhere else abroad. But last Monday the story was picked up by Reuters international news agency, and Mr. Yamafuji finally attracted some attention outside Japan.
Considerable attention, as it turns out. Mr. Kamen’s company, Segway LLC, has not responded other than to say that, while it is “aware of Professor Yamafuji’s work,” its Human Transporter represents “a significant advance over prior technologies.” But on the Internet, interested parties from patent lawyers to potential customers were busy debating the merits of Mr. Yamafuji’s grievance all week long, in a veritable Babel of languages.
Most focused on the legal and financial implications of the case. The patent issue is complicated, everyone agrees, with a consensus emerging that it would be difficult, though not impossible, for Mr. Yamafuji to challenge Segway’s U.S. patent (since the company had disclosed knowledge of the Japanese team’s work in its application) and difficult, if not impossible, for the Segway to be sold in Japan if Mr. Yamafuji were to pursue legal action on the basis of his prior patent rights here. Many could not resist seeing the issue in terms of America vs. Japan, with die-hard nationalists on both sides accusing the other of a history of “stealing technology.” Bystanders got into the act, too. One Indonesian commentator even suggested that “Japan” must be wrong about the Segway since it had been wrong about so much in World War II.
Apart from the idiocy of seeing Mr. Yamafuji as a nation rather than a semi-retired professor of robotics, the debate still seems to us to miss the point he was trying to make. Why is everyone discussing patent rights and legal action when Mr. Yamafuji has said he has no plans either to dispute Segway’s U.S. patent or to fight the company in Japan? Why was the Reuters article headlined “Segway scooter may hit bump in Japan” when he has denied wanting to cause a bump? Why the concern about financial ramifications when he has said, persuasively, that he is not interested in money?
Perhaps that’s the problem. We are not used to people saying they don’t want money and don’t want to sue. It is assumed that greed is the first motivator of human action and anger the second. But if we look at what Mr. Yamafuji actually said, not at what people think he must have said, two things stand out: his disinterestedness and his mildness. He wishes no one harm. He is not angry. He is not anti-American. On the contrary, he thinks the Segway is “a wonderful product,” which many Japanese will want to try. He asks nothing but the professional courtesy of being given credit for his inventions (not mere ideas, but actual working machines).
That doesn’t seem too much to ask, especially since no one disputes his claims. It’s asking a lot more to expect people to recognize the values Mr. Yamafuji has so unexpectedly brought to our attention: uprightness, civility and, above all, belief in the old-fashioned ideal of a supranational intellectual community committed to the free but fair exchange of ideas. Of all the things he has said recently, the most refreshing is the remark that someday he would like to meet Mr. Kamen — who he has heard “is a nice person” — and share some more ideas with him. Mr. Kamen should be so honored.
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