Subject: Re: patent trolls and X-licensors
From: "Stephen J. Turnbull" <turnbull@sk.tsukuba.ac.jp>
Date: Tue, 06 Jun 2006 13:03:10 +0900

>>>>> "Ben" == Ben Tilly <btilly@gmail.com> writes:

    Ben> But I believe that patents are counterproductive for that
    Ben> goal.

How in the world would you know?  For one thing, software patents,
like democracy and Christianity, have never really been tried.  What
we have is a patent system adapted for hardware, which has worked
tolerably well for at least some fields like pharmaceuticals and
post-it notes, and which has been grafted on to the software industry
willy-nilly.  I really don't think it's realistic to hope it will
"just go away" (many of my colleagues are in there pitching for its
survival as expert witnesses, for one thing), yet rather than looking
for and advocating achievable reforms, or demonstrating that reform
*can't* work, which is a far different proposition from pointing to
the problems of the current system, those disappointed in the current
system chase a will o' the wisp of abolition from first principles,
principles which are apparently not held by the majority of software
engineers, let alone society at large.[1]

For abolitionists, the exercise that Tom is conducting should be
viewed as an *essential* first step in demonstrating that patents
*can't* work, for example, and pointing to problems in the *existing*
system is not an answer to the questions he's raising about a possible
alternative.

For another, you give your example of wavelets; it's easy to count
*current diverted effort* as a fraction of *current effort*, but how
do you know how much effort would have gone into wavelets had there
not been patents?  How do you know that effort would have been devoted
to commercializable products as opposed to leading candidates for
Proxmire's Golden Fleece award?  The Golden Fleece award is not a joke
on the occasional outlier, you know; it was an attempt to throw light
on rampant "abuse".

I don't agree that it's abuse; I think giving research junkies enough
money to keep body and soul together, and maybe keep a lab furnished,
is the right way to fund science.  Who cares vhat zey discover? sez
Werner von Braun.  As long as it's at least amusing.  But it's not a
straightforward path to economic value.  Nor do I think the government
can pick good commercializable[2] projects.  That leaves providing
incentives for the scientists and engineers themselves to
commercialize.  As Miles Bader's .sig says, "99% of everything is
grunge".  That is surely going to apply to patented research results,
too.  But at least the researchers at the scene of the crime have a
better chance than bureaucrats in Washington---or Tokyo---of assessing
which are going to work.

I don't believe those incentives are really there, in general anyway,
without some form of intellectual property.  I can tell you that in
Japan, the recent emphasis on patenting and licensing (starting about
5 years ago), combined with the government's severe budget problems,
has had a galvanizing effect on a lard-assed academic research
establishment.[3] The useless wankers still have the upper hand,
because the primary source of research funding is still grants awarded
by committees of academics.  However, it's changing rapidly because
it's clear that ten years from now most applied research programs that
require more equipment than a couple of PCs and a 10-seat Mathematica
license are going to need to supplement grants (both from the
government and from the private sector) with licensing revenue.  The
galvanizing effect is being communicated to "pure science" fields as
well as the fields with potential commercial application, and it's a
good thing.

The jury is still out on whether it's good for Japanese science and
engineering as a whole, of course.  It might have been better to just
fire all of us, and send the good students to Stanford (or if
necessary, Harvard, if they can't get into Stanford or Berkeley :-).
But my own assessment is that, at least for the next 20 years in
Japan, it's "just what the doctor ordered."


Footnotes: 
[1]  That said, I think the likelihood is high that abolishing
software patents is what we'll come to in the long run.  It's just
that it's *far* from an open and shut case.

[2]  Good != commercializable in my lexicon.

[3]  IIRC, MIT alone has hosted the research leading to as many
science Nobel prizes as the entire nation of Japan.  I'm not counting
the economics and medicine prizes (in the former Japan has zero; it
has several of the latter).

-- 
Graduate School of Systems and Information Engineering   University of Tsukuba
http://turnbull.sk.tsukuba.ac.jp/        Tennodai 1-1-1 Tsukuba 305-8573 JAPAN
        Economics of Information Communication and Computation Systems
          Experimental Economics, Microeconomic Theory, Game Theory