Saturday, May 19, 2012

Do software patents stifle innovation?

At the recent IP Forum sponsered by Australia's patent office (IP Australia), the organizers well meaningly gave opportunity to an anti patent protagonist named Ben Sturmfels.

It was an egalitarian move and quite open minded of IP Australia, but in my mind a bit of a mistake. This congenial open forum was used by Ben for statement making and not any real reasoned interchange.

Ben took the arbitrary stance that patents were for the betterment of society and should NOT be used for the protection of inventor rights.

In my mind his whole argument fell apart when I asked him the following:

"If a person who comes up with a verifiably new way of doing something do you feel that anyone should be allowed to steal that idea and use it as they please?"

Time and again, he said "Im not going to answer that as it is not relevant. Patents are not about that."

I then asked him about copyright. I asked him if someone working for him took his code and used it as he pleased, is he happy with that?".

He again ignored the issue saying he was not going to comment on copyright or stealing of ideas since they had nothing to do with software patents.

His whole position on patents circles around on itself in the misplaced and misguided notion that patents are not conected to any other form of IP law.

Interestingly, when I looked up the technical purpose of the patent law as it is expressed around the world in places like the USPTO web site and wikipedia, the definition is pretty simply stated in a way that is good to thoroughly understand:

"A set of exclusive rights granted by a government of a country to an inventor or their assignee for a limited period of time in exchange for the public disclosure of an invention."

"A key benefit of this system of disclosure of inventions is to ensure there is no duplication of effort by others working on the same invention." - that seems to be a good thing for society - R

Both these statements are simple and quite sound and seem to ring true of the core principles of western law. If it is in the common good to not have people duplicating work and wasting precious resources, then it is also in the common good that those ideas be published and shared without allowing indiscriminate stealing of that idea.

Like with any other law, these often are a series of restrictions that benefit society by regulating extreme behaviour of individuals in that society. Driving on the left side of the road infringes the rights of an idiot that wants to drive on the right, but it makes for less stress when going to the shops.

Copyright protects makers of written, musical and graphic works so that great stories and movies can be shared and the investment of the creator rewarded and preserved.

To say that patents and copyright are not rooted in the same principles of law is just outright ignorance.

I asked everyone I met in attendance at the forum what they thought of Ben's position and there was clearly confusion about the basic assumptions of his position. What was he saying? That it's ok to protect technologies and inventions that are not software based but that its open season on anything software based? Go for your life, take anything you want?

I'm sorry Ben. You seem like a nice guy, but come back when your position is a bit more grounded in logic mate.

In closing, one of the inventors I help made a joke about Chinese R&D. He called it Receive and Deploy! Funny. Where copyright and patent law is not respected you cannot expect people to make major investments or contributions when their work is just going to be stolen.

Interestingly it seems that China's IP laws and respect for IP is increasing not only because of pressure to be part of the international community that respects IP law but also because, as Chinese technology advances, they need IP laws to stop their own internal competitors from just taking their work and abusing it.

What goes around comes around. You steal, then you you can't complain when someone steals off you. Better just to move somewhere where people respect each other and give fair compensation when someone shares a great new way of doing something.

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