27 April 2006

I've Seen the Future - and It's Patented

The name Nathan Myhrvold probably doesn't strike fear into your heart; it may not even be known to you. But one day, rest assured, he will make Bill Gates look benign. Gates simply wants to own the software industry, and, as has been amply shown over the last quarter century, is prepared to do anything - including creating the odd illegal monopoly - to achieve that. But at least Gates has the virtue of believing passionately in the value of the software his people make; and at least they do actually make something.

Myhrvold's company, Intellectual Ventures, does not make anything. It will never make anything. For its domain is patents, and all it aspires to do is to create the world's biggest and most lucrative heap of patents to get the people who do actually make stuff to pay licences - whether justified or not - by threatening to sue them if they don't. Industrial-scale patent troll-dom, in other words.

Myhrvold once worked for Microsoft, and became very rich doing so. His new venture is based on an astute reading of the broken patent system in the US, and on how to play it in all its glorious brokenness. If you want the full details, read the excellent article in IP Law & Business, probably the best introduction to just how Myhrvold intends to do it.

He may well pull it off. His logic is impeccable, as you would expect from someone who is anything but a fool. But it is based on the past - a deeply-flawed past that threatens to bring innovation to a grinding halt in the US, and anywhere else stupid enough to acquiesce in the latter's demands that its own patent regime be imposed as part of trade agreements.

For all his cleverness, Myhrvold cannot see - will not see - that the future belongs to a different model for "intellectual property", a commons-based approach made famous by free software, though not invented by it (it's actually as old as the idea of the commons, which goes back to the Romans and beyond into the mists of time).

In fact, Myhrvold's likely success in bringing entire sectors to their corporate knees through the use of broad patent portfolios may have the ironic consequence of hastening the ultimate repeal of all the accumulated stupidities in the fields of patents, trademarks and copyright. For this reason, I wish him every success. Almost.

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