Science, Science and Society, Technology

On the subject of patents

Something encouraging actually happened today in politics for a change. Commerce Minister Craig Foss, who  gets the ‘aimee whitcroft award for most awesome aptronym of the day’, has been listening to NZ’s IT sector on its huge resistance to software being patentable here.

And in the wake of that announcement, I figured I’d share a wonderful piece of reasoning from Scott Berkun, whose book The Myths of Innovation I’m currently reading.

The paragraph quoted was written as part of a chapter demystifying the myth of the ‘lone inventor’ - the idea that one person can be given the credit for a particular innovation. Not only are there generally numerous people working on similar problems or solutions at any one time (and not as collaborators!), but each innovation will tend to rest of the shoulders of the innovations before it, which allow it to be conceptualised, developed and commercialised/spread.

Today, years away from the Renaissance, we’re still attached to the myth of lone inventors. We do recognise collaboration and partnerships, but we often fall back on tales of lone innovators as heroic figures for reasons of convenience. We insist on isolating credit and dismissing the importance of others. Patent law, by design, credits one or a handful of individuals, assuming not only that ideas are unique and separable, which is dubious, but that individual names can be given legal ownership of ideas. Patents, as currently applied in the U.S., do solve problems, but they create just as many. They distort popular understanding of how inventions happen, as well as which innovations are most valuable to the world.

And this doesn’t even look at the huge cost to economies of patent trolls every year…


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