Who owns science? Manchester Manifesto can't answer
Some questions are bigger than others
Who owns science could be an interesting question: who should own science even more so. Sadly, the latest attempt at asking exactly these is less than interesting in its answers.
The Manchester Manifesto (pdf) is a report from the Great and the Good over how we should change the intellectual property system so as to make it accord with "current best practice". They want to make it easier for poor countries to get hold of new technologies so they suggest they should be given to them.
Unfortunately, it simply repeats the rather dreary usual list of bien pensant talking points and fails entirely to provide either the necessary description of the basic problem or to offer anything much in the way of radical solutions to it.
That basic problem is that science, knowledge, is a public good. No, this is economist's jargon and it does not mean something that's good for the public: nor something provided publicly or something the public would like and not even is it the same as “the public good”. A public good is something which is non-rivalrous and non-excludable. Now that Newton's scribbled down his equations about gravity we can't stop certain people from using them and if they do use them it doesn't stop us from using those same equations: non-excludable and non-rivalrous.
Our problem is that such public goods are terribly hard to make money out of. If we can't stop someone else from using them how can we charge for them? And therein lies that problem: if we can't charge for the use then how do we raise the money to find out all this wonderful new knowledge?
The general conclusion is that we should do two things. First, we should subsidise the production of public goods. We do this with such things as basic scientific research, the blue skies thinking. We also do it to an extent with things like education: yes, this might be for the public good, it might be provided by the public to the public but there's also an element of it being one of these “public goods”.
Being a member of a society where all are (near, in some cases) literate and numerate is something generally beneficial and near impossible to charge for. Thus even Adam Smith pointing out that basic education should be taxation funded.
The second is that we should fiddle the system somehow in order to reduce the underprovision of these public goods. An example here would be creativity and invention. A truly free market solution would be like the open source movement: once created anyone can use the code. Excellent and admirable and it's given us some great products (including much of what makes this here internet work) but that's not enough.
So we've this (imperfect) system of patents and copyrights to deliberately throw a spanner into the free market. We create property rights and legally enforce them: the aim is to increase the amount of money that can be made from creation and thus increase the amount of creation we get. It's emphatically not a reward to someone who has done some creating: it's to encourage the next person with a bright idea to do that next piece of creating.
There are of course downsides to this spanner in the works: the creation of artificial monopolies means that some creation is limited by the banning of derivative works. The sweet spot of such a system would be when the amount of new creation encouraged was greater than the derivative work banned: something which it is hard to argue the current system does when, say, Wodehouse's first novel, The Pothunters, released in 1902 will be in copyright until 2045. Patents with their 17 year life (and of course their extremely important corollary, the full release of methods at patent time) might be closer to what a desirable system would have.
"Those opposed to software patents simply want to profit and clone the work of others right now rather than wait 20 years for the patent to expire and become public domain."
Nope. Those opposed to software patents don't want to have to license a zillion patents for stuff that is taught at universities, described in freely available literature, included in countless systems, and built using numerous freely usable and openly described concepts and mechanisms. Stuff that purely by applying the knowledge and expertise they have gained through learning and experience they will inadvertently reproduce, just through the proper practice of their discipline, without ever reading the vague, opportunistic text of a single patent claim.
Those in favour of software patents just want yet another discipline to plod along at a restrained pace while monopolists and the legal profession extract every last dollar from practitioners of the discipline, burdening those willing to tolerate operating an organisation under such a regime with obscene administrative and legal overheads that would effectively turn such an organisation into more of a client of the patent system than a participant in the realm of science, engineering and technology.
Both genuinely competitive proprietary software vendors *and* Free Software developers reject software patents and yet embrace copyright since it is the only fair instrument which protects developers from plagiarism and unfair exploitation of their work. Your suggestion that such parties don't respect genuine innovation is a despicable misrepresentation of their position - yet another untruth projected by the software patent lobby as it seeks to position itself as a solution to a problem that simply doesn't exist.
The big differences
"The sweet spot of such a system would be when the amount of new creation encouraged was greater than the derivative work banned: something which it is hard to argue the current system does when, say, Wodehouse's first novel, The Pothunters, released in 1902 will be in copyright until 2045. Patents with their 17 year life (and of course their extremely important corollary, the full release of methods at patent time) might be closer to what a desirable system would have."
The big differences between copyright and patents are that the latter affects entire *classes* of works when one person or organisation files for such a monopoly, and that anyone unfortunate enough to have developed such a work independently and without knowledge of the granting of such a monopoly can be punished for their honest efforts. It is arguable whether the man in the street "respects copyright" but he can surely understand what plagiarism is. In contrast, a patent claim and its effects would be baffling and cruel to anyone but the most blatant apologist for the patent system.
Fiddling with term limits ignores the fundamental injustice of patents, especially in fields such as software where advances occur frequently and ubiquitously as the wealth of existing knowledge is combined and enhanced.
beware the snout of the camel at the door of your tent ...
... the rest of the camel will soon follow: as soon as it is introduced large corrupt corporation will, ahem, persuade politicians to extend it to 5, 10, 25, 75 years. It's just the slow road to software patents (and I'd bet it wouldn't be that slow).