Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/12/30/patents_review/

Shining a light on patents

We're all pinko now

By Mark Ballard

Posted in Media, 30th December 2005 08:03 GMT

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.

Even if you do stand up, you'll probably get sat on. But at least the free (love) and open source movement (FLOSS) has proved the exception to this rule, for the moment.

Don’t forget to floss

The European Parliament's trashing of the software patents directive in the summer gave the flossers a bathroom break that was sorely needed after they had spent more than three years spitting bile at bureaucrats.

The EC competition police, already the darlings of IT industry's militant left for their assiduous harassment of Microsoft, raised spirits even higher with their efforts to prevent patent ambushing at the European Telecommunications Standardisation Institute (ETSI) - a practice whereby standards bodies help establish standards for which they secretly have the patent goose that lays the golden eggs.

Even the US Supreme Court's emperor's clothes decree (that P2P file sharing services such as Grokster could be sued for copyright infringement if they promoted their software for the purpose) was merely a lesson in the bleedin' obvious.

The flossers had some setbacks, but all in all it became easier in 2005 to imagine a world in which IP thumbscrews could be loosened as well as tightened.

Dream sequence: So, okay-okay-okay.... listen up guys... wouldn't it be really nice if we could all, like, share all our knowledge and hard work freely and openly? And we still all get paid? Equal salaries? Sort of thing?

A younger Gould might have thought such a utopia desirable, if it didn't have to be populated by Stepford husbands and wives.

But is it possible? Not if genome patenters get their hands on the gene for human greed before the public access genomers do.

It is about as likely as world peace. The rapacious bastards who have an interest in expanding IP laws are like an indestructible, leeching weed that snatches a hold in any crack that might appear in the pavements decent people lay a criss-cross our good society.

Yes, the bile is infectious but, let's face it, IP is a complex issue in which the laws change almost as rapidly as the society they are supposed to reflect and advocates on both sides can be equally and unreasonably disingenuous. It's much easier to sensationalise the issue than discuss it soberly.

Paved with good intentions

Nevertheless, there is hope that the IP debate will reach hitherto incomprehensible levels of maturity in 2006. Indeed, this was the year in which the flosser dweebs found willing and responsible parents in the form of the international Adelphi commission of eggheads, whose IP charter deserves to be adopted as the manifesto for a rational return to debate in 2006.

Meanwhile, there is still the leeching weed to contend with; a herbicide-resistant superweed, as it happens. It was discovered at the start of the year to have been cross-fertilised by GM crops in British trials, reaffirming a similar discovery in Canada. Presumably, someone now has a patent on the weed's unwitting genes. Just as they already have patents on a fifth of you, me and everyone else.

There could be serious repercussions for all of us if the flossers fail to rally round the sensible example set by the Adelphi commission.

Picking our brains for profit

Let's assume, for the sake of bringing this retrospective to a suitably puerile end, that a good portion of the patents being stamped on the human genome cover areas of the brain. It's safe to assume few corporations would sooner be seeking to exploit the money earning potential of the human foot.

As the precedent for the patenting of ideas has already been set in the US, and of facts in Europe, it shouldn't be too difficult for someone rich, greedy and cynical enough to acquire enough patents in all three areas to own your thoughts too.

George Orwell, another disillusioned communist, was right about the direction in which society was heading. But his thought police are more likely to be a tool of patent lawyers than political dictators.

The patent owners of your ideas will charge them to your credit card at 1 cent a minute, making it unlikely that society's less advantaged will ever make it to college, even if they could pay the fees when they got there.

The only way anyone could avoid getting themselves into considerable amounts of debt over brain activity would be to spend all day watching Days of Our Lives reruns or Richard & Judy. Either that or take a job in a call-centre. ®