Summary: Sharp contrast between Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Edison; China falls into the trap of greed for monopoly
What do great thinkers like Don Knuth, Tim Berners-Lee and Thomas Jefferson have in common? Well, they all realised that intellectual monopolies hinder rather than advance science. TechDirt tells a story about Thomas Jefferson deciding that “The Hemp Brake Was Too Important To Patent”:
We’ve had plenty of discussions about Thomas Jefferson’s views on the patent system. He is, clearly, the father of the patent system in the US. While he was incredibly skeptical of the idea of granting any monopolies originally, he did come around to accept patents in very limited circumstances, and when he oversaw the patent system, he was careful to make sure that the downsides of such monopolies were limited. Separately, for many years, I’ve heard the story of how Ben Franklin purposely decided not to patent his stove invention, stating:
“As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.”
Regarding patents, a lot more has been said about Jefferson, who is known for his stubborn approach against this abuse of ownership. In The Letters of Thomas Jefferson we find:
THE EARTH BELONGS TO THE LIVING
“I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self evident, “that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living;” that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. The portion occupied by an individual ceases to be his when himself ceases to be, and reverts to the society. If the society has formed no rules for the appropriation of its lands in severalty, it will be taken by the first occupants. These will generally be the wife and children of the decedent.”
Now, compare that to Thomas Edison, who in a time when the patent office was said to have already gotten everything concievable filed, decided to carry on and earn about one thousand patents. He was a real patent maximalist, to whom patenting other people’s work was also seen as acceptable, based on this new item from TechDirt:
How Thomas Edison, Patron Saint Of Patent Holders, Copied Others’ Works To ‘Invent’ The Light Bulb
We’ve written in the past how Thomas Edison — who is often held up by patent hoarders as the perfect example of why patents are necessary — didn’t actually invent any of the stuff he’s famous for “inventing.” Instead, he’s most famous for taking the work of others and innovating around it just slightly, to find a good market — but then also patenting the work of others and blocking anyone else from entering the market. I admire his innovative side and his marketing prowess, but find his abuse of patents to be unfortunate. Reader Michael points to a recent story in Wired which highlights how this worked with the incandescent lightbulb.
Microsoft and Apple have taken a similar approach whereby they patent other people’s already-implemented ideas (or slight variations around them). It offers vanity over a mere number, which is to be blindly perceived as might.
Glyn Moody points to this alarming reminder (among many more) that China wants to use patents — including software patents — to carve out a monopoly for itself. He says, “watch for the US to get the sharing bug soon,” particularly in relation to this article from a patent maximalist publication in China:
He [President Hu visited a privately owned software company, and was pleased to learn that business was better than last year. The President stressed the importance of technological innovation.
President Hu Jintao said, “Nowadays, the competition in information technology is extremely fierce. I hope you, as a software company, will treasure technological innovation as your life. You need to own intellectual property rights for your products. I hope you will be pioneers in the development of our country’s software industry.”
He gets it all wrong. China would be far more competitive by sharing its wealth of knowledge, thus cheapening the process of research and development. Maybe some lobbyists have had him misled. He ought to be a Jefferson, not an Edison. █
“It was Edison who said “1% inspiration, 99% perspiration”. That may have been true a hundred years ago. These days it’s “0.01% inspiration, 99.99% perspiration”, and the inspiration is the easy part. As a project manager, I have never had trouble finding people with crazy ideas. I have trouble finding people who can execute. IOW, “innovation” is way oversold. And it sure as hell shouldn’t be applied to products like MS Word or Open office.”