Sun Jan 17 14:37:30 EST 1999

In in ideal world, I think that people should get credit for their work and ideas, to an extent proportional to their contribution. This applies to material that is copyrighted as well as patented.

Ownership of intellectual property is much more difficult to manage compared to ownership of tangible property. For one thing, ideas can be reproduced without any material costs, or very minimal costs, depending upon the medium of reproduction. Additional implementations of an idea can be made with no interaction with the original supplier of the idea. Therefore, copyright and patent laws have been created to allow the original discoverer of a concept to profit from its use.

Unfortunately, the system is broken. I can believe in the copyright system, since it protects individual implementations, which are usually quite distinct. However, I think the patent system is fundamentally flawed. This flaw stems from the fact that multiple people can come up with the same ideas, or at least ones that are similar enough to be considered the same under standard patent laws.

Let's face it--- we all live in the same world, and despite all our individual unique qualities, most of us get exposed to many of the same influences, both in terms of information we receive and the kinds of problems we are faced with. So, it's only natural that more than one person will come up with a particular solution to a problem. Patent law creates a situation where whoever came up with a particular idea first gets to profit from anyone who uses that idea, including other people who came up with that idea independently, no matter how much time, money, and effort those other people invested in their idea. This seems inherently wrong to me. What makes it even worse is that often the person with the patent isn't even the originator, but the real originator either isn't aware that a patent exists, or doesn't have the time or money to legally enforce the idea. So someone else who discovered it later gets all the credit and financial benefit. Perhaps that someone even got the idea from someone else who never patented it.

So, what we're stuck with is a system that forces people to patent ideas if they even want to use them, whether or not they intend to make a profit. Otherwise, someone else could come along, patent the idea, and then say "I have a patent on what you're doing, so stop doing it, or pay me royalties". Of course, for someone who just wants to use their own ideas, and not make a profit, it's not always feasible to pay the lawyers and patent costs. So this allows the big companies with lots of money to take ideas away from individuals.

This sort of thing is going on right now up at CSH. There's an internet enabled vending machine, called drink, that was designed and built by students up at CSH. It uses a debit system to get drinks, and has ways to remotely get status on the machine as well drop drinks (with a time delay for getting to the machine just as the drink drops). It was created sometime in the early 80's, and was accessible via a local network (originally using a serial connection to a networked machine), although indirectly (through user's accounts) it could be accessed from anywhere on the internet. It has gone through many revisions, and sometime in the early 90's it became directly accessible from anywhere on the internet via several different interfaces (including Xdrink) Well, someone contacted CSH with a "cease-and-desist" notice, saying that they have a patent on internet-enabled vending machines. More complete details are available at It appears the patent dates from around 1995, which is many years after CSH internet-enabled their vending machine. The idea had been widely publicised prior to 1995, so even by patent laws, it is "prior art". Will this make a difference? I don't know. It depends upon what kind of legal support CSH can get to fight the case. Money is one thing CSH does not have much of, being a student-run organization. It would be terrible for a corporation to take away something that the students designed and implemented because of enforcement of a patent that came later.

Patent law technically covers the case just mentioned, but of course all of the red tape and expenses involved could make it hard to prove "prior art" if you're not part of a large corporation. To at least have a chance at proving it, some people have published their ideas in trade magazines (some companies do this rather than getting patents, or as a first step before getting a patent-- usually, they pick a magazine with as small of a circulation as possible, so that the idea isn't very widely spread). But what about people who come up with ideas independently, but after (or around the same time) as the 'original' discovery?

I certainly feel that people have the right to sell their ideas, and to charge whatever they want for them. People have the right, of course, to not pay for those ideas if the cost is too high. The problem here is when people did not get ideas from the 'original' source. If someone comes up with an idea on their own, why should they have to pay someone else to use it? What makes this very difficult is the fact that there's no sure-fire way to track the path of ideas. Someone could easily "steal" an idea from someone else, and claim they came up with it themselves. There's also no way to erase the the thought once someone has been exposed to it. Imagine a transaction like the following:

And then B goes off and uses the idea anyway. With physical merchandise, you can try it out and return it if it's not what you want. With ideas, you can't, except through patent enforcement that says that even if you have it, no one can use it without permission from the originator.

Where am I going with all this? I'm not entirely sure. I don't like the system as it stands, because it's unfair to the small indepdendent researchers and inventors. It puts them in a situation where they could end up unable to use their own work. It forces them to join large corporations to continue their work with legal protection.

Without the patent system, however, people could freely steal each others ideas and the original discoverer of the idea might never even make any profit.

What is needed is some system whereby the source for each idea can be easily tracked, and compensation can be assigned accordingly in an amount proportional to the profit gained from the use of the idea.

(this is an onging train of thought which I will add more to later)