Subject: "incentive void" (was Re: A different patent covenant...)
From: <stephen@xemacs.org>
Date: Sun, 1 Oct 2006 04:15:55 +0900

Norbert Bollow writes:
 > <stephen@xemacs.org> wrote:
 > 
 > > If it is in fact a large incentive void, then patents are a useful
 > > policy tool.
 > 
 > That is non sequitur.

Sure, but I really meant "large enough", which makes it trivial.

 > If an "incentive void" exists, the first step should be to
 > identify as exactly as possible what categories of innovations
 > are part of that "incentive void".

First, in the U.S. and Japan, the status quo is the other way 'round.

Second, I don't think it will be at all easy to specify at levels more
precise than "software vs. pharmaceuticals".  Rob Cameron's invention
is an example of something that has been latent in the field for
several years, at least according to Tom Lord and Jamie Lokier, but
nobody's bothered to do, despite the fact that XML is one of the most
popular buzzwords in the corners of free software I know about, not to
mention software in general.  Suppose that Cameron's invention did
plunk into that void.  Tell me, how would you distinguish it from all
the XML technology that everybody and his sister is working on?

 > There are people who want to work on some useful innovation without
 > caring much whether they will personally benefit from their work.
 > If these people are provided with information on the "incentive
 > void", that will significantly increase the likelihood of them
 > choosing to work on a problem which is part of the "incentive
 > void".

I think you vastly overestimate the amount of manpower of that kind
available, compared to the number of redundant solutions that never
get published because they're boring and have no obvious audience, and
problems that remain unsolved because no one business alone can profit
enough from solving it to bother.

 > For example, I'm sure that the overall cost of the software
 > patents system exceeds $10million/year.  How about awarding, on
 > a yearly basis, ten "Nobel prize like" prizes of $1million in cash
 > each, plus the honor, to ten people who have made most impressive
 > innovative contributions in the area which was previously the
 > "incentive void"?

We already have that.  In the U.S. it's called the NSF, in Japan the
JSPS.  In Europe I'm sure you have one too.

 > Wouldn't that be likely to take care of the problem quite nicely,
 > without the really ugly side-effects of the software patents
 > system?

Almost certainly not; *impressive* contributions are pretty much by
definition not in the void that I'm talking about.  This system cannot
reward the efforts to promote (as opposed to develop) technology---but
that's where at least 50% of "innovation" lies.

That's the whole difficulty here.  Patents are not really about
rewarding world-class innovations; as we have known for generations,
those are their own reward, in fame, in fortune, or both.  The point
is rather to provide incentive for documenting, accumulating, and
promoting a large mass of small innovations.  Of course no incentive
is provided by rewarding innovations that have already happened, or
that are *immediately* obvious to any practitioner.  But once you've
cleared those bars, the market created by the patent gets the
direction right ---the innovations that most hurt when you have to pay
a high license fee are precisely the ones making the biggest
contribution to society.

It's still a monopoly, and therefore still pernicious.  But the patent
system does, in theory, address a set of problems that no other
proposal I've seen does.  These need to be compared to the costs.