Monday, February 11, 2013


Patents get pretty ridiculous.  The fact that major companies spend millions on litigation to fight about patents that claim to describe the shape of the corners of a tablet should tell us that the current system is idiotic.  Another clue we should not fail to miss is that there are a slew of companies out there whose only purpose is to try to register ridiculous, overbroad patents and then shake down as many other companies as possible.  Of course they aren't actually using any patents nor do they even want to end up in court.  They just want to scare people into thinking they have to pay up to make it go away.

I just read an interesting article suggesting that patents should go away altogether.  Ending patents completely doesn't seem like it would actually work politically because so many huge companies would stand to lose so much but I really like the idea.  It would dramatically open up the marketplace and let real competition loose rather than forcing anyone without a huge legal team to just pack up to bullying from powerful interests.  Letting small innovators come up with new ideas and create niche products without being shut down by a silly patent would be a great step forward for all of us.

There is a significant downside to losing patents entirely of course; a lot of funding for research is only justifiable because the potential result can be so lucrative and if patents were not enforceable some research would not get done.  Of course the research that wouldn't get done might not be that valuable; when patents are in place research focuses only on things that can be patented.  While large pharmaceutical research firms do come out with nice new innovations here and there an awfully large percentage of their new products are barely helpful, or not helpful at all.  Research is also regularly tainted by the fact that it is being pursued within a huge company.  Scientists in hospitals and universities are not perfect but their research is a *lot* less biased that labs within private industry.

We have known for a long time that monopolies generate very undesirable effects in economic situations.  The consolidation of too much power in the hands of a single entity always creates abuse.  Patents contribute mightily to this because patents promote companies that have enormous legal teams and huge bankrolls rather than multiple small companies.  As we saw in recent years when companies get so big that their collapse would destroy entire marketplaces they are a huge threat to independent government and to stability, not to mention creating serious wealth inequality.  I think we will all be better off with a few less weapons in the arsenal of huge corporations.

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