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

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Tue, 22 Dec 1998 01:47:37 -0600

Tim Bates, <>, writes
> 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.

Limited patent rights maximize innovation. After 20 years, it is assumed that your patent would have been obvious in any case - that it would have been invented even without a patent system or a patent office or any other motive to make a research investment. The patent office gives you a 20-year monopoly on the theory that you could get roughly the same amount of time by holding a trade secret; thus there is no loss to you from revealing your invention. Or to put it another way, the government (the public?) gives you a 20-year monopoly in exchange for having the invention 20 years earlier.

Ideally, patents are not so much property as a cooperative agreement between yourself and the public; if you reveal the mechanism of your invention so that the public can benefit, the public agrees to ensure that you don't suffer for it. Because of the vulnerability of this social arrangement to cheaters, at least at the time of the framing of the Constitution, it was necessary for the government to enforce it.

Under a technoanarchy, buying the machine, or blueprints of the machine, or any information about the machine, would require that you agree not to build the machine, and require the same contract of anyone to whom you disseminate the information, up to and including the information of the invention's existence. People who refused to participate would not know the invention existed. One could buy insurance if one could not make good on damages from the revelation of the invention. This is a completely Libertarian solution with pure contractual agreements. It also happens to be completely impossible. Imagine trying to conceal the existence of an FTL drive from a randomly selected 5% of the population! Thus the Libertarian solution must be approximated by governmental fiat.

In the case of software patents, they are botching it completely.

--         Eliezer S. Yudkowsky

Disclaimer:  Unless otherwise specified, I'm not telling you
everything I think I know.