Wednesday, 14 September 2011

When Patents Attack

My computer software ** engineer husband sent me a link to a podcast by This America Life by WBEZ: When Patents Attack that gives a lot of information about why people who work with software think patents harm, rather than help, technology.  Nowadays companies who don't make products sue companies who do for patent infringement.  And companies that don't want to get sued have to come up with their own patent portfolio, so if they do get sued, they can counter sue and hopefully come up with a mutually acceptable settlement that lets both companies use each others patents.

This is not what patents are for and it wasn't always like this.  It occurred to me that with all the accurate predictions of the future made by science fiction I don't know a SF book that directly mentions the breakdown of the patent process so that technological development stalls.  If you know one, please mention the name and, if possible, author, in the comments.

And if you want to learn more about the problems with patents, the podcast is quite interesting.

** Apparently there's a difference between a computer engineer and a software engineer, so while he works with software, his degree is in computer engineering.  Sorry for the confusion.


Michael said...

Stephenson's "Diamond Age" touches upon it, but IMHO there aren't any such novels because it would be too grim. There are a lot of fantasy books about well-fed princesses, princes, queens and kings, and not so many about serfs living a short unhappy life as a starving farmer. Book characters are always nobles who do not face mundane problems.

In the same way, writing a book about a character who is truly adversely affected by the infinite growth of intellectual property laws is likely to be a grim, painful experience, along the lines of "The Trial", "1984" or "Brave New World". It would not be a pleasant uplifting read. It would not be accepted for publication.

Many books have mentioned it tangentially, in the sense that China or India or some other place has, in the work, supplanted the U.S. as the world's superpower, and often there is some hand-waving reason given along the lines of the U.S. not innovating as fast as these other places. But it just wouldn't pay (I mean that literally) for an author to try to get into the weeds and have an actual discussion of why and how things went off the rails in the U.S.A.

Jessica Strider said...

Interesting points. And you're right, it would be depressing. There have been several novels showing the slow collapse of civilization (Soft Apocalypse - Will McIntosh and Homeland - Paul William Roberts come to mind), but I haven't had the chance to read them to see if patents or slower technological growth were mentioned as reasons for that collapse.

I also wonder if some post-apocalyptic America book I haven't read mentions it as a reason for the end of civilization, rather than war (most of them) or overpopulation (Make Room, Make Room - Harry Harrison) or some other reason (plague, whatever).

You're probably right that books predicting China or India becoming the next superpower are the closest to this that's been written.

I guess it just surprises me that something that's been affecting the technological field for several years doesn't seem to have trickled into fiction yet (or at least SF fiction). That I know of.

Michael said...

Actually, I take that back - Cory Doctorow.

There's one short story directly on point:

and probably more of his stuff if you check through it all. And of course Stallman's Right to Read:

That's about copyright, not patents, but close enough. You'll probably find more short stories, rather than novels. Somehow you got me off thinking about novels, but it's the kind of issue that could only be handled at short story length (again, too grim if it was longer).

Jessica Strider said...

Cool, thanks! I don't read many short stories. I've been trying to do better, but there's only so much reading time. I'll definitely check those out though. :)

Adama said...

The story about this problem is "Melancholy Elephants" by Spider Robinson.
You can read it here:

Jessica Strider said...

Thanks Adama, I'll add that to my reading list.