Groklaw's akStan found something truly useful. He was looking for a paper on symmetrical-components analysis of three phase electricity, he tells me, but he found a patent course instead, on MIT's Open Courseware web page.
Dr. Robert Rines, who has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame,
taught the class from his book, Create or Perish, and homepage for the course has a graphic showing Thomas Edison's 1879 patent application for an "Improvement in Electric Lights." The entire book is available as PDFs, one for each chapter. The final chapter is interesting, because he talks about some of the problems with the patent system, but you know about all that already. What is probably the most valuable chapter for us to read is the one on how patent law works, chapter 3 [PDF]. It explains what can and can't be patented. They keep stretching that line, of course.
If you attended the course at MIT in person, you'd have the advantage of professor-student interactivity (not to mention credit), but the information is entirely available to the world and for free. Thank you, MIT, for understanding the power of openness. And thank you to the professor for making his book available online.
So, let's learn what we can. If Microsoft is ever stupid enough to attack Linux with patents, the more we understand, the more helpful we can be. The book is a little hard to read, because it seems to be a scan of a Xeroxed copy, but I found I could do it bearably if I made the font larger.
There is a very useful collection of information on patents on Cornell's LII site also. Cornell has a list on the right of the page of such helpful things as the most recent Supreme Court decisions, such as the Festo case.
And you can search the database for just the historic cases. I found it by looking at the MIT course's Resources page, and there is a section for links contributed by the students. An unnamed student placed the url there, which goes to show you that you don't have to be a professor to contribute to the world's knowledge commons.