Postcards from the Bleeding Edge
Sunday, December 24, 2006

  Patents and Copyright

The point to patents is that they do expire in a short time. Securing a monopoly on something is anti-competitive in one sense, as monopolies slow down progress. In another sense patents do reward someone for investing in R&D with a potentially long return on investment. I think that is good, in the abstract.

The details are difficult.

Most of my bitches about the patent system are: Securing a patent should cost enough to pay for an adaquate search for prior art by the government and the public, and the challenge and review system needs to be adjusted to harness the power of the Internet.

The defensive patent strategies companies pursue today bears a marked resemblance to the mutual assured destruction strategies of the Cold War. Companies are piling up enormous arsenals of explosive patents with no safe way to profit from them - there are no signatories to a patent non-proliferation treaty, and disarmament talks needed to start decades ago.

I still haven't met a business method patent I liked, and most software patents I have had the dubious honor to encounter are more annoying than useful. Perhaps, as many insist, these new forms of patenting should be "removed from the field", much as short range nuclear weapons were removed from Europe long before ICBMs were scaled back.

Well... I happen to think that several software patents are legitimate! (the mp3 patent and the various patents around echo cancellation are examples) It's one thing to rail against "software patents" in the abstract, quite another to look at patents like these and and try to determine if they have some innate quality that makes them unpatentable, because they don't. It's a heck of a dilemma for an open source guy to cope with. Once you admit that some software patents are valid, what do you do?

Even if your god is progress at any cost, I'm quite unsure that eliminating the patent system is a good idea.

Innovations like the Open Invention Network seem to be a reasonable bullwark against frivolous patent portfolios. Continuing in the cold war analogy: OIN is the equivalent of the United Nations. (and nearly as toothless)

I'd like to see low cost patent clearinghouses, much like we see copyright clearinghouses, so ordinary people and free software users can pay what dues are required to do what we do. Implemented broadly the costs would be low. ESR is working on an idea like this, called the Codex.

Adding a "buy" button to yum and apt-get to legitimize the livna and debian-nonfree repositories would be a good thing, IMHO. With that mechanism in place, more good quality nearly-free software would be widely used (and ultimately become truly free once the relevant patents expire), more commercial software would become available for Linux, and end users would still benefit and pay for only the products they use.

...

I'm more concerned about the absurd length of copyright than the current abuses of the patent system.

My christmas wish would be to see the copyright law of 1909 restored:

1) 14 years, renewable once. Research conducted by myself and by Richard Posner indicated that 85% of all copyrights, while we still had the renewal system in place, were not renewed. It only enriches lawyers to lock everything up for effectively forever, and IMHO, holds back progress far more than the patent system.

2) Copyright reverting to and renewable only by the original author, as well. (pre 1920 rules) This would do a lot to prevent abuses of creators in their early years. Take a look at the differences at a typical author's contract (rights of first publication and the like) and a typical musician's contract (we 0wn you), and realize that the author's contract is based on law and social convention dating back to the Statute of Anne, and a musician's contract to copyright law post 1920. (I note that author's contract terms have got worse and worse over the last 90 years, as the social convention was no longer enforced by law)

3) Registration of unencrypted sources with the copyright office (and a fee) required to secure copyright. Copyright would benefit from borrowing from the patent system, if the above central resource assigned a copyright number to works registered with it.

Bonus link: a little rant about Windows Vista and copyright in general.

(I will light a candle in celebration when the mp3 patent expires in 2010 - until then, I make oggs, and feel a twinge of guilt everytime I encode an mp3 with no system in place to reward the original creator - but only a twinge, as I've arguably already paid for an encoder 3 times already)
 
Comments:
review system needs to be adjusted to harness the power of the Internet.

Patent search should become much easier now that Google Patent Search is available.
 
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David Täht writes about politics, space, copyright, the internet, audio software, operating systems and surfing.


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