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Shining a light on patents

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2005 in review This will be known as the year in which the killjoys were startled by whoopee cushions every time they tried to park their fat wallets on some feeble creative freedom.

Whether big business was trying to suppress software development, exploit our cultural heritage, monopolise our genes, or take control of the food chain, it kept having to beg its pardon.

The year had opened with an ominous creaking of rusty hinges, with the prospect of a whitewash of the EU software patent directive looking likely, Grokster facing thumbscrews in the American courts, and the human genome being patented in less time than it would take for a gay cowboy to truss a hog.

Then Bill Gates lightened the mood with an insightful gag, likening campaigners against stricter intellectual property law as "some new modern-day sort of communists".

This one gangly phrase brought more lucidity to the software patent debate than any amount of venomous bickering managed during three years of European Union law botching.

Biting the hand that feeds IP

Anti-IP campaigners snatched the opportunity to stick a moral pin in their lapel, Gates' comparison being accepted as praise, which between the lines, it was.

Bill reminded us that the new modern-day sort of communists, okay, have more in kin with the old sort of pre-modern kind of thing. While the old sort of, like, modern as in pre-post-modern type of communists have more in common, so to speak, with the kind of people who would patent motherhood, and probably already have.

The whole history of communism and patents can be summed up in the story of one remarkably determined man, Gordon Gould, the inventor of the laser who passed away this year.

Gould's persecution for his communist beliefs during the McCarthy witch-hunts prevented him developing a patent for his laser. But he fell out with communism, apparently when he realised how much the power-crazed Stalinists had in common with their Usonian rivals, and subsequently devoted much of his life to establishing and defending his intellectual property, and helping others do the same, for a fee.

However noble your ideals, you still need to make a living. And if there is anything the free-market orthodoxy of the last quarter century has done for us (because both capitalist and communist history taught us nothing), it has shattered any illusion about the fact that if you don't stand up you'll get sat on.

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