Patents are evil … but head-starts are good

Most folk I know in the software world seem to acknowledge that there’s something evil about patents. To be sure, they are a good idea in essence: the guy who thinks of an idea should have a head start on implementing it, and should receive some of the financial benefits of his genius. But they don’t always work that way. There are several reasons for this.

  1. If you are the original designer, you are in love with the idea, not the paperwork. Besides, you don’t have $10-20k to pay a patent lawyer or to defend the patent.
  2. So some Big Bad Corporation copies the idea, gets the patent, and prevents you from operating. Most folk accept the moral quip “To whom much is given, much will be required”. But Big Bad Corporations seem to be exempt.
  3. Despite this, patent law exists, and we have to live with it. So many designers file patents anyway — just to protect themselves.
  4. Another problem is that at least in software, patents stifle competition for much too long. A 20-year patent isn’t just a head-start. It will more likely see your software through the dinosaur stage.

Get bright ideas going

Enter: The Incubator

At microPledge we’d like to do something about this situation. Many people don’t realize that you can time-stamp your idea (“prior art”) by correctly publishing it. This can prevent someone owning a later patent from holding it over you.

As a side benefit of microPledge we’re planning an “Incubator” service. This will serve several purposes:

  1. It will publish your idea with a checklist to properly authenticate it as legal “prior art”.
  2. You will be given a head-start of several months (years are evil) on the microPledge website. During this time our website can give you exclusive right to receive micro-pledges to your idea. This will help you consolidate a user-base.
  3. You will avoid the huge expense of a patent.

What’s our aim?

The Incubator fits with our big aim for microPledge. Namely, to improve the quality of low-cost software. For example, right now, much open-source software is floundering for lack of a few funds. Many people would happily pay their pocket money to these projects if they could be guaranteed an outcome of higher quality software. It is this guarantee of an outcome that microPledge seeks to provide its pledgers.

The Incubator will encourage people to get started with good ideas, will take away some of the threat of the Big Bad Corporation and will consolidate a user-base of supporters right from the beginning. This ups the incentive for developers and, to me, it spells improved quality in low-cost software.

22 June 2007 by Berwyn    2 comments

2 comments (oldest first)

Chris Papadopoulos 22 Jun 2007, 16:48 link

If your legal reasoning is rock-solid and you can demonstrate that it is without any question, you’ve got a winning concept here.

I think all intellectual property is bogus, but its especially harmful in the software world where advances are often usually just the equivalent of mathematical formulas and innovation takes place so rapidly.

J Gruszynski 23 Jun 2007, 03:31 link

When I worked for a big name genomics company I was talking to our CTO about future products and he finally said “With our patent portfolio our customers have to buy from us – we don’t need to innovate.”

Now, I have an MBA and want to make profit as much as anyone, but if I didn’t want to innovate I’d be selling toilet paper not high tech products! This is the obscenity that IP laws create and the longer the protections provide the worse the induced behavior. In a phrase: moral hazard.

Needless to say this company still does have a dominant position in their market but they’ll be smashed the moment those patents start to expire. They have competitors they don’t expect waiting in the wings with technologies that if combined with theirs will be beyond anything they can imagine or compete against. No, nothing I’m involved in directly (yet) but I’ve placed goodly bets through the markets.

They’ve gotten fat, dumb and lazy because of their IP portfolio though they think they’re beyond anyone else. For some reason Stanford MBAs and PhDs always think that. But their financials prove their costs aren’t an innovation priority either. Cool technology but it wasted on them and everyone who could benefit suffer.

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