Software Patents

There are few issues that get me as riled up as the concept of software patents. Algorithms should not be patentable. Even the concept of patents on physical inventions makes me uneasy.

A patent is a claim on a bit of virtual property which may be valuable if passage to other virtual property of interest requires going through the area of virtual property covered by the patent. Unlike real property, the virtual property of the patent can't be fenced off. This means that anyone can recreate the virtual property of a patent independantly.

Exclusivity to a patent is granted on temporal grounds; if two individuals have come up with the same idea, the party who has filed a patent application first would be granted the patent. This exclusivity applies only in the realm of reality consisting of the intersection of government reality with the set of inventors..

I have never applied for a patent. I have invented many things some of which could have been eligeable for patents. I have refused to go through this process since I believe that one cannot claim exclusivity in the country of the mind.

A patent is a very arrogant document which asserts dominion over a novel portion of reality despite the likelihood that multiple instantiations of the piece of reality might exist at a given point in time as many people can come up with creative ideas.

Patents are structures created by the poor. Someone who has nothing would likely not object to a wager where he bets all on a proposition that is decided through some personal action. A novel idea, and a saleable patent offers the possibility of dramatically increasing ones income for the duration of the patent. For the impoverished invididual, this patent is all he has and he will fight for the right to enforce the patent.

Let us define the rich as individuals who have no concern regarding their ability to survive in the future. Such individuals have a regular income which is unlikely to be reduced. I fit into this definition of rich since, as a doctor, I have guaranteed payment for patients I see as long I am able to attract patients, and under the scheme I proposed I would be classified as rich. My hobby is programming. When I come up with a neat algorithm, I publish it widely. I am more concerned with people giving me credit for using my algorithm than I am with having any exclusive access to this algorithm. I give programs away; I always ensure that I give those I borrowed from credit, and I expect the same behaviour from those who utilize the programs I provide under the GPL.

I don't have to program to run into the restictions imposed by patents if I just come up with an idea too late. The patent system is contrived and artificial, but when one looks at the history of patents, they appear to have accelerated progress. If a patentable idea occurred to an individual in the lower classes, the successful acceptance of this patented idea was the only way out of the lower class status that the individual who came up with the patentable idea.

Note added 20/8/2001 T:=00:53
While netsurfing yesterday, I ended up on the GNU website and ran into some of Richard Stallman's thoughts on software piracy. Richard appears to have utilized the same rich/poor ideas as I have, but in another context. His ideas were more along the lines of software being an intangible and one can't own an intangible. Also, someone who copies an intangible deprives the owner of nothing.

The notion of scarcity underlies interactions in the physical realm and this is most dramatically seen in the area of land ownership. A beachfront lot in Vancouver or San Diego is a hell of a lot more valuable than the same chunk of land in Siberia or the Sahara desert (if you can't figure out why, where would you rather live?). In cyberspace, the notion of scarcity vanishes; there are limits set by ones hardware, but if Moores law holds, processing capacity will be the best approximation to a perpetual machine that the world has ever come up with in 20 years. The model that holds in the realm of physical patents applies to a world in which the concept of scarcity holds; software, for all practical purposes, is exempt from this limitation. Application of the scarcity model to cyberspace results in obscene profits for companies that have a popular virtual product.

There is a difference between a virtual product and a physical product. Consider a bestselling book that would sell say 10,000,000 copies. The printers who produced this book would benefit as would trucking firms who transported the boxes of books to various bookstores around the country. The bookstores would benefit and while the author of the work would do well financially, the nature of the physical medium would result in the profits being much more widely distributed than in the case of a the same work being distributed electronically. In this case, the price of the work should be far less than the physical work, but this is not what is happening at present.

The same pricing structure, or actually a higher pricing structure, that is being applied to old physical technology is being applied to new technology with the net result that obscene profits are made by those who claim to be owners of certain information. It is curious to look at the prices of casette tapes compared to CD's and video tapes compared to DVD's. Recording a casette or video tape takes far more time than stamping out a CD or DVD. When I personally perform this operation, it takes me 1/12 the time to burn a CDR as it does to create an audio tape. It would be reasonable to expect that CD's should be less expensive than casette tapes and DVD's should be far less costly than video tapes. The situation is quite unusual in that the prices are roughly double for new technology than they are for old technology. The new technology also has profits concentrated among a much smaller group of individuals than does the old technology.

My weltanschauung is most closely related to that of libertarians, but when it comes to the people that I interact with the most, our pattern of interaction is undistinguishable from idealized communism. "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" works only when one is dealing with a group of equals. This system only breaks down when the differences between abilities and needs become too large. When one is among equals, such a system for managing property is the simplest one to implement. In the case of virtual property, ones needs can never exceed the supply unless one places artificial restrictions on supply. This is what the software industry is doing and it will fail.