Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Necessity of Patents and Reform of Patent Laws

Patent law is something of a gigantic question for a lot of people. These people want to understand it. Most don't. But it's that kind of an attitude that really lends power to the people who want to take advantage of it. So let's begin by defining what I mean when I actually talk about a patent, and how it differs from copyright.

First of all, a patent is the idea that an invention was created by a specific individual or group. It differs from copyright in that patents are for things with practical applications. In fact, it wasn't until 1981 that the major problems of today with patent really started (though these are far from being the only problems), because of the software industry's insistence that a computer program is more than applied mathematics (which is, if you'll excuse the pun, patently untrue).

Computer software works by taking inputs (long strings of numbers), applying math to them (operations), and then creating outputs (more long strings of numbers). The electronic pulses that create a computer program are usually represented by ones and zeroes, representing "on" and "off" states of a computer's central processor. But in the end, all that switching and decision-tree-ing amounts to mathematical decision-making.

By allowing computer software to retain a patent, the Supreme Court has ultimately played a part in all of the abuse that consumers now enjoy because of the crossover between the three protections: copyright, patent, and trademark. The entire term "intellectual property" is actually a misnomer, because while it is created in the mind (by the intellect), there is no property until it has a practical application. In fact, the US PTO (Patent and Trademark Office) used to require a working prototype in order to receive a patent. Since that is no longer the case (since you can't really have a prototype for mathematical equations), patent is ultimately weakened. Making tougher laws to enforce patents has the inverse effect to the desired intent: it weakens all of the so-called "intellectual property" laws by linking to them.

Also, software is not a "practical" application. The word practical has in it the same roots as the word practice. By granting patents on software, we essentially grant a patent on a thought. You see, the word practical implies a practice which is action. Software is a virtual application; that is, it provides theoretical data the way that any complex mathematical function can. A computer monitor is little more than a graphing of those complex mathematical functions. However, graphing is action. Computation is action. The calculations themselves, which require a computer to operate, are non-action, and so should not be protected by patent. Copyright should be enough.

The word application in the software world is also potentially misleading: the connotation is that it is a practical application. However, the reality is that software only streamlines work and provides instructions based on mathematical formulae, rather than accomplishing any work itself. Before software was patented, mathematical equations could only be protected by copyright, and only then if they were published. The result is that there is a lot of confusion about the differences between copyright and patent. And now trademarks are starting to get blended.

In fact, the proponents of intellectual property laws often want the protections of all three of the different sets of laws on one production, rather than a good, strong protection of just one. That's because it ensures that they can control who makes the money and who doesn't. The problem is, in the process it kills the golden goose: people suddenly don't like patents or copyrighting or trademarking because it represents corporate greed and bullying. So they try to simply work without it, and refuse to have anything to do with the enforcement. In the process, they break the law simply trying to be consumers.

And also, since 1981, the practice of "shelving" patents has increased immensely. This practice is probably one of the most damaging that I can imagine. The reason behind shelving patents is simple: it buries competing technologies. For example, an idea for an engine that was entirely powered on water was devised in the 1930's, only to be rendered unusable by the powers in the government making money by keeping oil in the engines of the vehicles on our nation's roads at that time. The water engine worked, as it was demonstrated time and again. But it did not pass muster because of a patent system too weak to protect the individual who came up with it, and too strong to be countered for the right to build it at a later date.

And now anything can be patented. Life forms, business plans, and even book designs can be patented, because of the landmark decision by those in the Supreme Court which failed to take all of the future possibilities into account. The can of worms has been opened and it now seems that nothing can close it again. It creates the problem of non-viability within the patent system. Copyright is also in danger of becoming non-viable because of the way it's enforced. Trademark will follow suit.

Much of this has been speculated about (and special thanks to rms for this speculation, which I believe is spot on, though I'm still trying to gather proof for it) to have originated with the current people who want to lump copyrights, patents, and trademarks together under the heading of intellectual property in order to blend the protections offered by these three widely variant law structures so that all three apply to all creations at once. Organizations such as the WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) are puppets of the entertainment media industry, who bullies companies and even governments into acting on behalf of their own interests. Their corruptive influence needs to be at an end. It's time for reforms in the laws that allow this influence in order to reduce the power of patents and restore the balance, and it's time for a stronger separation of patents, trademarks, and copyright.

Though I support Senator Obama in his bid for the Presidency, I will say that I disagree on the idea that expanding our influence overseas is a wise idea. I further believe that patent reforms accomplished will not serve to strengthen patents, but to weaken them by making patenting an undesirable option. We are already witnessing this trend in the draconian world of copyrights.

Balance, in this and all cases of copyright and patent, is key to the survival and continued viability of the systems affected. The imbalance is in the manner in which these things are required by the laws in place today to be enforced. Many copyright and patent enforcers make the claim that their right is fundamental, and that stronger protection means increases in the law for the duration, protections, and requirements to enforce.

Another imbalance exists where there is a barrier to entry, and this is less of a major problem than shelving is, but it's still an enormous issue and one that essentially creates "haves" and "have nots" where patents are concerned. While there are plenty of US patents available at Google Patent Search, there are not patents yet available from other countries, and so enforcing international patents can become an issue, particularly where the WIPO agreements our government claims to adhere to. I say "claims to adhere to" because the language of these agreements is highly subjective in English, and seems to lack an understanding of how patents actually need to work.

Barriers to entry create a chasm between rich and poor. In a capitalist wealth distribution system, there are rich and poor, but there are also a great number of people between. This "middle class" is the foundation for the entire economic structure of capitalism, and while it feels great to be rich, not everyone can be. If there were no barriers to wealth, then everyone would have the same amount of everything, and there would be little incentive to improve: this is a communist economy with perfect wealth distribution. Likewise, if the barriers to wealth were at every turn, there would only be "rich" and "poor" and this would become an imperialist economy instead of a capitalist one.

Capitalism needs a balance between rich and poor. It needs there to be the ability for poor people to make it big, and the risk of the rich to lose everything. It needs the middle class in order to show that progress can be made between rags and riches. But with patents, there is no equivalent. There's the "rich" patent-owners, and the "poor" non-owners, with very little way to bridge the gap, because many kinds of patents required (until 1981 or soon after) a working prototype. And now the gap is one of researching patents and paying an attorney to do all of the legal legwork of filling out the papers. It shouldn't need an attorney; however, with the sheer amount of litigation and exploitative practices happening, not having a lawyer is a liability.

Today, the US PTO (Patent and Trademark Office) requires very little in the way of proof that something works before a patent is issued. If the idea looks "viable enough" and is based on "provable principles" then a patent can be granted if it doesn't step on any other patents. And investors can fill the gap between the "haves" and "have-nots" where patents are concerned. But they still won't patent things like sex toys or perpetual-motion machines.

But therein lies the problem: some of the patents that the world actually needs most do not themselves make any money whatsoever. And many that could make money and promote the progress of mankind are sitting on a shelf somewhere, unusable until the patent expires and is not renewed. But a lot of these ideas could enhance other money-making ideas, or in other ways benefit humanity.

Then there are medical patents. In order to build a life-saving apparatus in the spur of the moment, many times you must violate a patent by combining pieces. While this is not the best approach to medicine, it is occasionally necessary to innovate well outside the norms of practice.

Patents are an enormous problem. And like copyrights, balanced approach to patents are essential to the continuation of a free and open society. So what can we really do about all of this? It's a complex answer with several simple solutions.

One solution is to abolish patents altogether and amend the US Constitution. However, this essentially sidesteps the issue, which will remain in spite of the amendment to the contrary. Trying to enforce this will essentially lead us down a very dark path away from the ideals of democracy, so this is not really an acceptable solution.

Another solution is to let them have their way until the population is so sick of patents that they shy completely away from anything to do with patents whatsoever. Again, this solution leads us away from democracy, and is despotic in nature.

A third solution might be to simply ignore patents until the burden of litigation so completely overwhelms the courts that lawmakers are more or less forced to reduce patents. Again, this isn't a great solution, because lawmakers don't respond well to being forced into anything (nor do any of us, really). Lawmakers are human, too.

A fourth solution is to try to accomplish something similar to what has occurred with the Creative Commons and GPL licenses for patents, but again this isn't really as viable for patents as it is for copyright. There are certain ideas that these could work for, and certain things they would not work for.

As a fifth solution, we might also completely scrap the patent system in favor of a new one. Right. Like Congress would ever even give this thought serious consideration.

The sixth solution, and the one I personally favor, is to simply reform patent law back to its original state, sweeping all so-called "progress" in patent law away. Sweeping changes like this, I'll have to admit, aren't a fun thought for me. Rapid changes can destabilize things. However, sweeping changes like this could be accomplished with a minimum impact on stability in as little as 7 years. That's less than two presidential terms.

As you can see, there are quite a number of sides to this debate, and it's likely to continue for a very long time before anything gets done. While not as core to civil liberties as copyright, patent is still a very major issue and a balanced system is still tied to civil liberties.