|Re: Patents and Copyrights|
Message #65 Posted by Thomas Okken on 14 July 2009, 11:10 p.m.,
in response to message #61 by Howard Owen
there are instances where the little guy wins with patents. Two old friends of mine hired me on to a startup they had going in 1999. One of them, the primary technological genius, had patented quite a few novel ideas having to do with virtual private networks and and OS level virtualization. (He was an early pioneer in that sort of thing, having ported 4.2 BSD to the VAX - on top of VMS!) When Nokia bought the company in 1999, those patents made my friends instant millionaires
I'm very uncomfortable with the general notion that X is a good idea because X occasionally makes some little guy a millionaire. Not that I begrudge anyone their good fortune, but I'd much rather support policies that benefit people *in general*, rather than those that allow people to win some big jackpot that they haven't actually done anything much to deserve.
I mean, sure, if Y creates some product or service that becomes wildly popular, and makes Y filthy rich, well, more power to Y. This is the main selling point of capitalism. I have no problem with that whatsoever.
What does trouble me, though, is when that Y uses a patent to prevent others from selling the same kind of product or service. If Y's product took lots of time and money to develop, patent protection seems fair; if the only merit of Y's idea is that Y happened to be the first one to think of it, it doesn't seem fair. Not to me, anyway.
Pharmaceutical companies often have to invest astronomical amounts in developing medicines; allowing others to simply copy their products would take the economical incentive out of developing them, and innovation in that area would stop, unless governments or other not-for-profit subsidizers would step up and fincance the process instead. (Note that I'm not trying to imply that one approach is inherently superior to the other; only that this is the kind of choice you'll have to make.)
I have yet to see a software patent that comes anywhere near being justified like pharmaceutical patents. Compared to the millions that pharma has to spend on the development of any single product, software patents tend to cover things that any reasonably competent programmer could have figured out in at most a few months' time, representing an investment of maybe a few tens of thousands of dollars at most.
The way they're used at present, software patents seem to me like the business equivalent of a child yelling "dibs on the front seat" when the family gets ready to get into the car for a holiday trip. People reap huge rewards simply for being first, while what the patent system *should* be doing is rewarding those who make large investments in developing things that are truly new, orignal, and non-obvious.
I totally disagree with Geir's point that patents and copyrights should be abolished. Patents are important because they allow people to recoup the costs of developing innovative products, and copyrights allow people to make a living from being genuinely creative. It seems to me that most of the controversy surrounding patents nowadays stems from patent examiners' lack of reluctance to grant patents on things that are obvious (which in turn is caused by the insane idea that the patent office should be funded by the income from patent applications), and from the way that some record companies are seeking excessive damages from people who infringe copyrights on the Internet... The excesses are bad and should be fixed, but the basic ideas are sound, and, in my humble opinion, important.