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Thursday 3 March 2011
This week, patents.
There are conservation laws for things like matter, and angular momentum. You can't make more of either, or get rid of them. If I have some angular momentum, and you take it, then I have less angular momentum. But if I have an idea, then it doesn't matter who else knows about it - I still have the idea. Information isn't a conserved quantity like the matter in my TV and my car, and the energy they use. (And yes - I do know about the quantum Liouville theorem...)
It makes sense to prevent people stealing real physical property like TVs and energy. But how can someone "steal" an idea? The idea's creator is not, after all, deprived of it.
The creator is not even deprived of reasonable profit from the idea if someone else uses it. All the creator has lost is their monopoly. We usually consider monopolies to be a bad thing, and yet a monopoly is precisely what a patent or a copyright gives the creator of an idea. If I want to make and to sell toothbrushes, then - quite rightly - I can't prevent your doing so too. Why should I be able to restrict your freedom just because my idea is new?
The whole mad principle of "intellectual property" makes about as much sense as faith-based education or chiropractic, but it is entrenched. How could we improve things without lots of lazy vested interests like drug companies and music producers bleating?
I propose the concept of a free patent (and its equivalent for copyright). We keep patent law exactly the same, but add a "Free Patent" tick box to the patent application. If a new idea's creator doesn't tick that box then they get their patent just like now.
If they do tick it, however, anyone else can use the creator's idea without paying any royalties. But they have to pay tax on what they do, whereas the creator doesn't.
Governments would actually make more money in taxation - the non-idea-creator's tax bills would almost always outweigh the tax that would have been paid just by the creator alone. The creator of the idea gets a real advantage from it - exclusively, no tax needs to be paid by them on the idea's exploitation. And they also have no need to pursue patent infringers to keep their advantage (something individual inventors find financially impossible anyway). So, finally, lots of lawyers have no patent infringement cases to fight and end up unemployed.
Result all round, I think.