subtitle: beat the horse slowly (as in I've said all this before, I know, I know)...But I just posted this on Samizdata.net, and Qumana is making it easy for me to spam my own blog with cross-posts, so here goes:
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Different people have described the Metabolite patent, currently under review by the US Supreme Court, as being about protecting a fact, but if you could patent the fact of homocysteine's correlation to B12 levels, then we'd all owe Metabolite licensing fees just for existing in a state of B12 homeostasis. To play devil's advocate, I read the patent as applying to the observation of the relationship. As such, it is a bit as if Galileo had filed on his observation that the earth orbited the sun. At the time, his view certainly met the USPTO's criteria of originality, utility and non-obviousness.
There is a dangerously bumpkinesque notion afoot, which holds that patents obstruct progress. This is (pardon the pun), patently false. Why is it that the most vociferous critics of the patent system, the citizens of the web--people who can understand that markets are conversations--can't seem to grasp that patents are conversations, too? Patents protect the free flow of ideas within our business, academic and entrepreneurial cultures.
Before we blitely trash the Patent Office, let us be clear on the actual ethos of patent protection. The point of patents is not to protect the patent-holders; it is to allow the rest of us to read the patents, adding to our collective knowledge base. The protection provided is a carrot. Nothing more….
By offering a proprietary position on a piece of work, for a fixed period of time, we gain permanent open access to the idea and the process that led to it. The granting of patent rights is a collective cultural and financial investment we all make--and if you're a libertarian, this is the kind of tax you want to pay. For the applicant, the filing of a patent is a form of open intellectual engagement with the world of ideas, a bit like the exercise of free speech. You can also call it opportunism if you like, but it's a functional question at root, not a moral one. Like them or not, patents and the culture of open exchange surround them foster more innovation than they retard.
Look at Gallileo: had he been able to hand a patent application over to some proto-Jeffersonian (the US's first VP took patents home in his briefcase every night), rather than having to lobby a bunch of recalcitrant "experts" in skirts and surplices, he might have enjoyed some freedom from worry and gone on to further acts of creativity. If not by profiting from his work, at least by virtue of the systemic protection afforded by the very existence of a patent office.
We tend to blindly assume that all great men and women we admire maxed out their creative potential--they achieved greatness, didn't they?--but if you look at their histories, you find that usually they limped to greatness under extremely unfavorable conditions. The culture of the patent has gone further toward ameliorating this culture-retarding situation than any other institution in the history of mankind. And it can go further.
There are plenty of valid arguments out there for why our patent system is broken, like this one comparing the USPTO to Bastiat's Fallacy of the Broken Window. And there are also plenty of ways to fix it. But I'm concerned about the baby in the bathwater. Why should these protections not apply to the inventors of non-corporeal stuff, as well as thinkers whose contribution is to connect non-obvious dots?