Re: Very good discussion by me of Intellectual Property Rights ;-)

Hal Finney (
Mon, 21 Dec 1998 23:37:29 -0800

Tim Bates, <>, writes, regarding software patents:
> There should be no software patents whatsoever. I argue that there is
> nothing in software which is not obvious, it is all "obvious".
> No patents = no living with bad decisions. Why the heck do you trust the
> government, government clerks at that, to know what is best for you?

Well, as you say, the definition of "obvious" may not be clear. But I would not agree that everything in software or other disciplines is "obvious". To say that you must broaden the word so much that it is useless.

There are extremely intricate algorithms and other inventions which are far from obvious. Some inventors are motivated primarily by the hope of patent protection. Without patents, these people might have gone into some other field.

In cryptography, the researcher sometimes called the "patron saint" of cypherpunks, David Chaum, has a number of patents on technologies which can greatly enhance freedom and privacy. It appears that the hope of patent protection has been a significant motivation for him. This is what you risk losing if you eliminate patents.

Chaum is a single individual. Big companies like IBM have expensive research labs that are de facto "patent factories". They crank out thousands of patentable inventions every year. This intellectual property helps the company justify the research expense by giving them something they can add to the bottom line. Without patents, the economics of industrial research would be less favorable, and there would probably be less of it.

> Hal, this last comment you make below, is, I think, highly instructive:
> >Don't forget, though, that patents only last for 20 years, while copyright
> >can go on for 100. Many of the controversial software patents will
> >be expiring in the next few years. In my own field, cryptography,
> >the patent on public key technology expired last year, and the patent
> >on the RSA algorithm expires in September of 2000.
> How do you defend patent expiry if it is a right? To me, if patents are
> justified, they should last forever. Just like when you buy some land, it
> is not yours for 50 years. It is yours, period. The fact neither of us
> thinks that patents should last in perpetuity suggests that patents are
> property but are rather a state tool arrived at by trading off the
> interests of one power group against another. The losers are you, me, and
> innovative companies.

As I indicated in an earlier posting on intellectual property, I don't see property in such absolute terms. If society wants to define a kind of property that lasts only a finite amount of time, there is nothing inherently contradictory in that. We already have other kinds of economic relationships with limited lifespans, like leases and loans. There is nothing wrong with extending this notion to property, if the participants agree that they are benefitted by it.