Sunday, February 07, 2010

Patenting the Environment

It seems that Bill Gates would like to have a patent on the idea of cooling off the oceans to prevent hurricanes. I find it interesting that he would want to do that. I can imagine that his team of attorneys want to patent the idea in the broadest of terms, rather than just the technique he has envisioned. And by the way, if you want to know how Bill Gates likes to do business, you should read this. And this.

There is one very interesting point that seems to be missing from the discussion. From my understanding, patent applications are not required to include a reduction to practice or a working invention. Instead, potential patentees can essentially use a diagram and a few notes. Here, Gates doesn't even have what would have to be a very expensive prototype. You know, a fleet of ships. All he's got is an idea. And as in many cases, the patent is on the very idea, rather than the method. It's sort of like patenting a bridge and applying the patent to any bridge rather than the specific method used to support the bridge.

But that's what the patent people want. They want to patent an idea and sit on their butt collecting royalties and suing people rather than making something real. Inventors make their inventions because they want to do something better than what is already out there. They don't sit around in brainstorming sessions thinking of ideas and finding ways to lock everyone else out of the market unless they pay a licensing fee. That takes them away from tinkering with stuff.

Imagine then, for a moment, that people like Gates believe themselves to be the saviors of the world. That they can solve this giant problem on their own, and because they feel pity for the rest of us, they will license this idea to us on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms (RAND). "Gee, that's a really nice shoreline you got there. I'd hate to see anything bad happen to it." That means if you buy insurance, Gates will let you use his idea.

And it's not just Gates. It seems that negotiators representing the US want to "protect" their intellectual property when it comes to solving the problem of Global Warming. As if we could do it all ourselves, and of course, since we're the United States, we have the best ideas and nobody else can borrow or improve them without paying up. They want a corner on the market for the solutions to this global crisis, and tell us that everything will be alright if they get paid.

I think it's fair to say that problems as big as global warming, ocean acidification, the rise of the slime, and a number of other issues we will have to solve cannot be solved by a single entity - other than the world. Patents create another problem that many people are not aware of: people who want to solve the problem and implement their solution, will have to check to see if their solution doesn't infringe on Bill's patents. If it infringes, we're out of luck or money. If it doesn't, Bill is likely to sue anyway just to make sure there isn't any competition for his idea.

Far fetched you think? You should see how Microsoft is handling competition with Linux, a free, open source operating system that anyone could use, if they wanted to. This blog is written on a workstation running Linux.

This is what I hate about patent trolls. Litigation. Killing trees by the thousands. And the guy in the linked article in this paragraph does this for a living. That's all he does. He sues people until they pay. And they do pay.

And now comes Toyota with their own patent thicket for hybrid cars. As the linked article suggests, they want to block competition. Some people wonder if this is right. Some defend Toyota saying that they should be able to recoup their research and development costs. I think that Toyota will achieve plenty of profit with the first mover advantage. Shouldn't that be enough for any inventor? Besides, every inventor is influenced and is a product of the culture that he lives in. He does not acquire his ideas in a vacuum. To say that he came up with his own ideas by his wit and his alone, is a far stretch.

So if you're worried that without patents, inventors will no longer invent, think again. Look at Linux. It's used everywhere because it's free. It drips with inventive genius as it works in the major stock exchanges, on your cell phones, in your TVs, on IBM's Blue Gene, one of the fastest computers in the world. They donate their innovations without any request for a patent. Many of the developers are paid for their work, too. It's estimated that 75% of code submitted to the Linux project is by paid developers. Even Vint Cerf, inventor of the internet, did not apply for a patent. Why? Because he wanted everyone to be able to use the protocols he invented. As far as I know, there are no patents encumbering Linux. That is, unless you work for a company called Microsoft.

My point is, inventors invent because that is what they love to do. What stops them from inventing? Doing patent searches. It's not just that they hate doing patent searches, they lose time that could be spent tinkering around. If we're going to solve the global warming problem (and other bigger-than-puny-humans-problems), we can't encumber the ideas that could save the world with patents.
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