Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Get rid of patents

Software patents have been under heavy heat recently and have never been favored to begin with; I'll talk about them a bit. But really, the problem is with all patents, not just software ones.

Software has very little manufacturing time. What amounts to an "invention" is a mere algorithm or data structure at best, and a vague "look and feel" at worst. In one corner we have a patent for a Linked List, one of the simplest data structures ever, and in the other corner we have Amazon's One-Click patent and Apple's multi-touch implementation.

Perhaps the biggest offense to those two patents is their obviousness. Linked lists are obvious data structures, if you tell any web programmer worth his salt "Make me a button people can click to instantly check out and ship", he'll just say "Okay." Patents are supposed to be for innovative (and new) ideas. In other words, these patents should never have been granted in the first place due to their obviousness alone. In the case of Linked Lists, those have been around probably since before computers.

In any case, software patents are the same as any other patents. Really, all patents are algorithms. It's a way of doing something to produce something else. Whether that happens in a computer or not shouldn't matter: if you have a fancy machine that produces fancy Widgets, there's an algorithm to describe your machine's behavior (and you're probably using it).

There's the argument of "invented" and "discovered", that algorithms and other math things are "discovered" rather than "invented". But what is a steel design? The human mind has to organize the already-discovered materials into a certain way. Well, what about math? The human mind has to organize various math structures in a certain way. I think this is a bad road to go down to getting rid of any patents, let alone ones over math or genomes.

Let's go back in time and find out what the purpose of Patents is even for. They were made, not to benefit only the individual who filed the patent, but to benefit society. They were made to provide an incentive for the individual to release details on what they did, so that the rest of us can do it too, but the patent gives them exclusive rights for a limited time on their idea to reward the initial effort. Here's the thing: if you want to keep your invention secret, then keep it secret. A patent is about making it non-secret so everyone knows how to do it, just that you can directly benefit from copies in the immediate future. Groups want the time limit to expand, but we're on a curve of exponential growth. 10 years is a horrendously long amount of time for anything, let alone things like software patents.

Patents are not a form of protection, they're just a form of incentive for an individual to release his secrets and benefit society. Do you really think someone in a foreign country is going to pay attention to any laws regarding patents in your country? Hell no. There's no reason to. If you want to keep an idea secret, keep it to yourself. If you really need to spread it around, keep it limited and force non-disclosure agreements. Copyright exists to protect your works, anyway. The motivation behind patents is profit, pure and simple, and thus only big corporations and lawyers care about keeping them around. Though there are some industries (the auto industry, I believe, is a big one) that don't use patents because they rely on secrecy.

With patents, there is no compromise from me. Get rid of them, they've become useless and harmful to individuals and society alike.

Posted on 2010-03-04 by Jach

Tags: intellectual property


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