Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Running with Little Atoms

During today's lunch run across the end of Lady Anne Lake, in addition to passing within arm's length of a four foot tall great blue heron and a 4 foot long black rat snake, themselves only separated by a couple hundred feet, I listened to Cory Doctorow's April 3rd interview on ResonanceFM's Little Atoms show. Most of the topics I'd heard from Cory before, although they were freshly iterated here: privacy, copyrights, authorship. But near the end was a subject I don't remember having heard from him before and it was worth the hearing. He gave his take on patents in terms of property. How we have a legitimate interest in things; a stake in them; even though we don't own them. His first example was your child. You don't own a child, but they are "yours" nonetheless. If someone kidnaps them or kills them they haven't stolen from you, they've actually done something worse: kidnapping or murder. Your cell phone number is another example where you may not "own" it, but you have a vested interest in it since your friends all know it; your business cards have it printed on it, etc. Your phone company shouldn't just suddenly assign it to someone else. So patents. So maybe some things, like genome sequences, or similar, shouldn't be patented in the same way that more traditional inventions are. Patents exist to help inventors get capital and to allow inventors to share their inventions without fear of losing their profit potential. Society wants inventions, and we want the insights shared so that other inventors can move to the next idea beyond. But currently patents are all the same: the inventing company gets 90 years of exclusivity -- a bit long for something like software. A big wig at Microsoft told Cory that they probably wouldn't write any less new code if they only got exclusivity for 10 years -- so why grant the other 80 years? (My synopsis is inelegant; have a listen if you're interested.)
Cory did quote the Microsofter as saying they were already writing code in "all the hours God sends", an expression I wasn't familiar with, and after chasing it around the Internet a bit, I doubt that's an expression used by a Microsoft executive. Apparently it's quite a British turn of phrase.

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