Tuesday, October 12, 2004

The Tools of Mischief

In one of my earlier blogs, I touched on the current furore over software patents and wondered whether anyone was making any suggestions to fix the problems.

Now, Groklaw has posted a fairly reasoned article by Craig A. James on this topic. He lays out the problems with the current US patent system, as he sees it, and then makes some suggestions about what to do about it.

James makes a couple of very good suggestions (limiting patent lifetimes, requiring that a patent be actively developed to stay valid, disallowing retrospective damages), but others aren't very practical. Nor, I think, are some of the examples he presents for allowing patents particularly good ones. (So Zantac prevents stomach ulcers, eh? It also represents a lot of investment: an investment that nearly prevented someone from investigating further and discovering the real cause of the problem: H. Pyelori bacteria, which can be cleared up by a cheap course in antibiotics.)

To be honest, my view is that, whatever their historical value, patents have become nothing more than tools of mischief and outright extortion.
  • A system where it is just about impossible to tell whether you can blow your nose without risking litigation (' a method of clearing the mucus from sinuses via compressed air...') is plain wrong.
  • A system that disallows others from adding improvements ('if we could compress the air by pinching the nose...') is plain silly.
  • A system that allows certain types to sit back and extort others who've put a lot of independent effort into a problem (' I want royalties on all those hankies you've been producing, buster!') is plain malicious.
No, I think patents should be scrapped. Completely.

But let's be realistic: the revolution isn't going to happen anytime soon (and, as inspirational as they may appear, I don't think many students of history would recommend revolutions as the way forward!). If the patent system is to be fixed at all, then the work has to start somewhere. James' article is a good a spot as any.


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