Subject: Re: patent trolls and X-licensors
From: "Stephen J. Turnbull" <>
Date: Wed, 07 Jun 2006 23:05:00 +0900

>>>>> "Ben" == Ben Tilly <> writes:

    Ben> On 6/5/06, Stephen J. Turnbull <>
    Ben> wrote:

    >> >>>>> "Ben" == Ben Tilly <> writes:

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

    >> How in the world would you know?

    Ben> Excuse me?

I think there's good reason to believe any beliefs in this area are
just wishful thinking.  I gave those reasons, you may disagree on
their quality.

    Ben> I said *I believe*.  You're not about to find a better
    Ben> authority than me on the topic of my beliefs.

Isn't that beneath you?  Surely you don't post on public lists
believing that nobody is going to pay attention to a word you say,
just because you write "it's a belief/opinion."

I, for one, take your unfounded beliefs seriously.  This time I want
more than that as evidence, though.

    Ben> Tom has said a tremendous amount, and if I wade through it
    Ben> I'm unlikely to draw the right conclusion about what part of
    Ben> it you're thinking of.  Which exercise of Tom's are you
    Ben> talking about?

The root of this thread.  The proposal to reform the patent system in
a way that (if I understand correctly) is intended to formalize the
notion that the patent office is just a registrar to prove priority
and publish the application.

    Ben> As for "commercializable products", I'd rather see wavelets
    Ben> show up in open standard and free software products.

And to hell with the 99% of mankind who wishes computers were never
invented, except for their X-Boxes?  Personally, I've got everything I
*need* already; I'd love it if all software from now on were open
standard and free, 'cause that would be a lot more fun.  But the guy
in the mirror says "Now, Steve, don't you think that's a tad selfish?"

    Ben> The famous example [of an innovation that the organization
    Ben> was unable to exploit] that people like to offer is Xerox and
    Ben> the GUI.  But it is not isolated.

Emacs and GNU comes to mind. :-)

    Ben> When you offer those organizations the protection of patents,
    Ben> the natural tendancy is to reflexively patent every idea that
    Ben> comes along.  Which then means that those ideas are now left
    Ben> to rot in organizations that simply can't pursue them for one
    Ben> reason or another.

That's nowhere close to obvious.  On the one hand, either somebody
does a patent search and buys/licenses it, or they don't and they
reinvent it.  It's not at all clear how those effects balance out
against the one you describe.  On the other, do you really think that
people are going to *give away* their R&D products merely because they
don't have patents on them?

    Ben> How many startups are started by people who had a good idea
    Ben> while in the wrong organization who then create the right
    Ben> organization to take advantage of those ideas?  Lots.  I
    Ben> think it would be more without the patents.

Again, not obvious.  How do those VCs manage to extract revenue from
ideas whose authors rather often quickly learn to hate the hand that
funds them?  Where would the money that funds startups would come from
if the pea-brained capitalists (at least with regard to the
engineering side of the business) could not acquire property rights in
the ideas that would be of use *without* the author?  Worse, with the
author in *direct competition* with them?

    Ben> Why does it matter how straightforward a path it is to
    Ben> economic value?

Because I'm *assuming* that motivation for *part* of the government's
policy.  Did I not just write "as long as it's at least amusing" as
sufficient justification for outright grants to science?  But it may
also make sense to formulate a policy that encourages picking off
low-hanging fruit.

    >> I don't believe those incentives are really there, in general
    >> anyway, without some form of intellectual property.  I can tell
    >> you that in

    Ben> While it isn't in a legal sense, in a very real sense being
    Ben> able to put your name on something as its discoverer is a
    Ben> form of intellectual property.  And it is a valuable enough
    Ben> form of property to be able to drive research.

Research, schmesearch.  The question I'm asking is does it actually
affect the lives of lots of people, to the extent that they're willing
to put in their 40hrs a week to buy it?  You know what?  I asked rms
for a Japanese OCR program 8 years ago.  As of 8 months ago, I
couldn't find one that reads *English* well enough to be more
effective than hand typing it.

Fortunately, it doesn't matter.  I have 12(!!) different proprietary
OCR programs now, just counting the CDs in my scanner/printer driver
box.  I paid $350 for the first, 9 years ago, $35 for the second, 7
years ago, and now I get two every time I buy a scanner (as far as I
can tell the bundled Windows and Mac programs are actually different
programs in most cases).  Nobody who cared about his reputation would
be willing to be associated with any of this crap, I assure you---but
it all beats hand-typing hands down, and any one would be worth $500
to me.

Graduate School of Systems and Information Engineering   University of Tsukuba        Tennodai 1-1-1 Tsukuba 305-8573 JAPAN
        Economics of Information Communication and Computation Systems
          Experimental Economics, Microeconomic Theory, Game Theory