Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The web should have been patented

So said WIPO DG Francis Gurry. He might be thought not to be the most impartial commentator on the desirability of patents ... For some reason his comments have only now achieved wide circulation, thanks largely to Cory Doctorow who posted a commentary here. The video is on YouTube (naturally).

My mind is boggling - though I can see something in rationing the web, which would be one effect of giving the underlying ideas patent protection. It would be much more manageable, wouldn't it, if there were less stuff on it? You'd be able to find what you wanted more efficiently. Unless what you wanted was what happened to have been rationed out of existence: like this blog, I reckon. Maybe the world would be a better place for that. It would give governments a much better chance of controlling what's on it, too: all that tedious free speech stuff would go. Mr Gurry seems to base his argument on the investment that would come in, which (a) ignores the amount of investment that there is in the technology without basic patent protection and (b) would probably put control in the hands of the Disney Corporation, News International and a vast array of pornographers. Much better.

Doctorow says that this could only possibly come from "a blind adherence to the ideology that holds that patents are always good, no matter what", and it's hard to disagree. Gurry says that IP is a very flexible system - a sweeping generalisation, I'd say, when he's trying to commend patent protection - and draws a comparison with the invention of the saxophone, which he said is the only instrument in the classical orchestra which has ever been patented. Well, I don't know whether there is a precise definition of a classical orchestra, but I doubt it would include a saxophone, which is a rare addition to what most people would understand as a classical orchestra: and as we are now discussing exotic additions to the classical orchestra, the ondes martenot was (were?) patented in 1928, and indeed there seem to be quite a few patents surrounding that instrument.

Gurry argues that patent protection for the saxophone meant that others (in addition to Adolphe Sax, who must be in the top seven of famous Belgians: Ickx, Merckx, Magritte, Rubens, Hergé, ... Plastic Bertrand - does Rubens count, if Belgium did not exist as such in his lifetime? And is it really appropriate to include Audrey Hepburn just because she was born in Brussels of an English father and a Dutch mother?) were able to make improvements to the instrument, unlike the violin the secrets of which died with a handful of individuals in Cremona centuries ago. I don't think there's much danger of the secrets of how the web works suffering the same fate. What the intellectual property system needs is less of this hyper-inflation.

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