“Lettre d’injures”

May 10, 2007

I can’t remember the name of the fellow but, in the 1920’s, a writer and poet member of the surrealist group in Paris used to start his day reading the papers with his morning coffee. He regularly got so inflamed by what he read that he would mark the articles and say in a sigh: “lettre d’injures” (“remember to send an insulting answer”). When done with his reading and coffee, he proceeded and dutifully went on to write those “insulting answers” with the seriousness and no-nonsense energy of a longshoreman moving crates on the waterfront. That was his duty, his contribution to sanity in an insane World.

That’s basically the kind of duty I felt called to this morning reading this pity of an article by Michael Kanellos on CNet. I already talked about patents in this blog and since Kanellos mentions Open Source, I feel such an answer belongs here.

So, what does Kanellos have to say about patents and copyrights? Not much really. Midway in the article though, the first piece of evidence in favor of patents is that “without them, the rapid pace of technological innovation around the world would slow to a crawl”. Really? Well Michael, this is not a fact but an opinion. Moreover, my dear Michael, since your article is trying to prove that “patents are good”, such a statement cannot be used as a proof or, at least, needs to be backed by facts: size of the economy created by patents, benefits brought to consumers, benefits brought to the functioning of markets. Those would be interesting to balance in a discussion about patents. None of this is provided here, mostly I fear, because no such data would prove his point.

And as for the argument that “without them, most open-source projects would rapidly wither away: without an intellectual property behemoth like Microsoft to fight, what would be the point?”. This is akin to say that “without cancer and death, high tech medicine would be pointless”. True but that’s hardly an argument in favor of cancer Michael, and not one to ridicule people searching for a cure as if they were some kind of accomplice to the disease.

In all honesty though I’d say he has a point comparing IP business to “burning someone else’s kingdom to the ground” or “[bribing] state legislators to obtain canal and railroad contracts”. At that point, I wondered if the whole article was not some kind of gigantic ironic joke. Is the article date April’s 1st? Will the second part of the paper shift in reverse and blast the premisses? Sadly not. The rest of the article is basically a collection of cutsy anecdotes without much merit. Nicely done and entertaining but, Michael, that’s story telling, not journalism.

At one point, Kanellos mentions Intellectual Ventures as an exemplary IP company: as someone who wrote patents own now by IV, I found that amusing. Imagine that: IV owns stuff I wrote with the consequence that I’m legally barred of making any improvement on these inventions without paying IV a hefty price. Tell me: where’s the “innovation mechanism” at work here? Will IV pay me to improve those inventions? Well, they’ll pay me to improve the patents but not the implementation (the reality) of the invention. Why? Because that’s not their business model. They’re just too happy to simply “own” the IP and sue (or threaten to sue) big names in the industry with this in their portfolio and get licensing fees (though none of those companies are really implementing anything: they just want IV out of their back…). Consequence on innovation? Negative. If anything, those good ideas (mine and those of others) will simply never be developed, frozen in some lawyer’s drawer who couldn’t implement them if its life dependent on them.

Remember: patents are supposed to protect the inventor (that’s why patents are nominal) and allow the inventor some protection so he or she can work and improve on them. The logic would be that patents couldn’t be transfered to legal entities like IV. They should be own by industries, companies with a vested interest in developing them. Without active development and use, patents should be revoked and fall in the public domain so others, more talented and active, could improve and continue to innovate. That’s how they could be a boost to innovation: use them or loose them. That ought to be the rule.

As for Kanello’s weak point of view on Copyright, I think I’ll let our good friends at Creative Commons to blast it. I’m sure they’ll get to it after their own morning coffee…