Thoughts on invention, innovation, and patents from 'Guns, Germs, and Steel'

I'm working on Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond. Good book so far, although I've ground almost to a halt halfway through. (I'd probably make better progress if it showed up as blog-sized chunks in my feed reader every day.) I like sweeping accounts of history, and this one presents many new ways to look at things. It also gets me thinking about the current sorry state of the patent system, with these excerpts:

All this is not to deny that Watt, Edison, the Wright brothers, Morse, and Whitney made big improvements and thereby increased or inaugurated commercial success. The form of the invention eventually adopted might have been somewhat different without the recognized inventor's contribution. But the question for our purposes is whether the broad pattern of world history would have been altered significantly if some genius inventor had not been born at a particular place and time. The answer is clear: there has never been any such person. All recognized famous inventors had capable predecessors and successors and made their improvements at a time when society was capable of using their product.. [...]. My examples so far have been drawn from modern technologies, because their histories are well known. My two main conclusions are that technology develops cumulatively, rather than in isolated heroic acts, and that it finds most of its uses after it has been invented, rather than being invented to meet a foreseen need. These conclusions surely apply with much greater force to the undocumented history of ancient technology. When Ice Age hunter-gatherers noticed burned sand and limestone residues in their hearths, it was impossible for them to foresee the long, serendipitous accumulation of discoveries that would lead to the first Roman glass windows (around A.D. 1), by way of the first objects with surface glazes (around 4000 B.C.), the first free-standing glass objects of Egypt and Mesopotamia (around 2500 B.C.), and the first glass vessels (around 1500 B.C.).. [...]. Once an inventor has discovered a use for a new technology, the next step is to persuade society to adopt it. Merely having a bigger, faster, more powerful device for doing something is no guarantee of ready acceptance. Innumerable such technologies were either not adopted at all or adopted only after prolonged resistance.. --Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, p245-247.

(However, see Boldrin and Levine's book Against Intellectual Monopoly for discussion of how Watt and the Wright brothers actually impeded progress for many years.)

Whether or not hardware patents in the past have encouraged invention, it seems clear that software patents today are harming innovation and progress. Obvious and overly broad patents are being used to either prevent competition or as a way for patent trolls that produce nothing valuable to extract rents from companies that do. Maddeningly, they're not even needed for their stated purpose. Progress in the software arts does not depend on granting such an extreme form of intellectual monopoly. Let's throw the damn things out.

Promise and peril

We're all building on each other's work, and our little contributions to the state of the art shouldn't be used to prevent others from implementing their own related ideas. Especially now that we have such a wonderfully fluid medium as software to work in. We're building ice cream castles in the sky. Computers and software can be made to do anything. After the initial outlay for the machine, anyone can build whole worlds inside.

Joseph Weizenbaum wrote: "The computer programmer is a creator of universes for which he alone is the lawgiver. No playwright, no stage director, no emperor, however powerful, has ever exercised such absolute authority to arrange a stage or a field of battle and to command such unswervingly dutiful actors or troops." Yes! What a trip. But to think if that power -- that we all can experience and share -- could be taken away, if our broken system continues to tell us that we are not free to create and play in our own worlds. I might not be a particularly accomplished free software programmer, but that threat of software patents still unnerves me. That I could create some great piece of free software and that someone could come along and say, no, sorry, you can't do that. We have a patent on that. I would be peeved.

But forget about me and my hypothetical contributions. What about the people that are already making the great free software we currently enjoy today? How maddening for them to have their work threatened by such socially dysfunctional people and institutions. Imagine being prevented from using and improving our community's software, all because Microsoft is afraid to compete, and greedy law firms are allowed to harass companies like Red Hat with grotesque lawsuits. It's infuriating. It's an unjust tax on thinking and creativity. It's like having to show your papers to travel in your own country. (After buying them at exorbitant cost from some corrupt government official.) It's a big sick joke and a harmful distraction.

How do you want to stifle your competition today?

No one is looking at these patents and saying, hey! Great idea! I'm going to use that. For one thing, they're useless for communicating anything helpful or practical. The only time people read them is after they've been used in another torpedo attack. Software patents don't promote progress in the useful arts. Ideas are in most cases a dime a dozen. The devil is in the implementation details, and patent troll lawsuits are just a way of punishing those who made an idea into a success. (See Vonage vs. Verizon, etc.)

Then there's this latest patent troll attack on Red Hat and Novell, which I don't think anyone would be surprised to find out if Microsoft is really behind it. A waste of time and money that could be better spent elsewhere. Is this what's to come? Microsoft has these 235 patents that they say GNU/Linux is infringing on. Patents they never identify. Is it because they plan to dribble them out one by one to patent trolls who will then grind down free software companies in an endless series of lawsuits?

Is this Microsoft's way of neatly side-stepping the problem of Mutually Assured Destruction from other holders of large patent portfolios? SCO fizzled, so now they're waging their proxy war on a new vector? Maybe causing substantial effort and expense on the part of the free software community to work around the patents, maybe putting some competitors out of business, but surely scaring away a lot of corporate sheep and money. And all the while there'll be Steve Ballmer jumping up and down, cackling insanely, reveling in the delicious stench of burning corpses and FUD. Is this promoting innovation? Or is it just a protection racket for bloated old companies that are afraid to compete? (And of course a welfare program for patent trolls.)

Building the future

Just as it was impossible for those hunter-gatherers to see where things were going with glass technology, it is also impossible for us to know what we're working towards. But we will improve our solutions, and I think build things faster and better if everyone is free to use the ideas they have on their own, that they get directly from observing others' work, and those that they synthesize from their own and others' ideas. (And of course it's that last which is mostly happening. Ideas don't exist in a vacuum.)

Why hamstring progress so that a few people, replaceable by any number of other people in our time, can benefit unfairly from monopoly? Especially now, with so many more smart people, and so much more knowledge available to all. Ideas and software should^H^H^H^H^H^H must be free, or I'm afraid we'll continue to see the same clumsy and slow development as in ages past. Relatively speaking, that is. Things are moving fast right now, sure, but I think it would be all too easy to stagnate under protectionist and corrupt laws, to the point where a thousand years from now our descendants will look at us as dark age simpletons, and marvel that we couldn't get this right.


Please visit for more on free software and etcetera. For example, you may be interested in a related post from a while back: Stephan Kinsella, "Against Intellectual Property".


Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License (CC-BY-SA-3.0). Reusable with this attribution (including hyperlinks): Copyright © Scott Carpenter, 2007. Originally published in Free Software Magazine.


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