I had an uncle who was a genius with wood. He had his own workshop in the garage lined with hundreds of woods – sheets, planks, 1-by’s, 2-by’s and 4-by’s; soft and hard, of every conceivable grain. He knew joinery at such a level that he’d put the guy from American Woodshop to shame. If you could chop it down, he could make it into anything you wanted requiring only a cursory description of what it was. All of this was 100% self-taught.
Outside of his garage, my uncle came off as anything but a genius. He was what we used to call “Un-PC”. If my uncle didn’t say one thing to offend at least one family member over the course of a gathering – actually, that never happened.
My point is being a genius in one pursuit doesn’t necessarily carry over, which I think has a very common-sense explanation. Specializing in one thing to a degree that makes you better at it than anyone else is a life’s work. Cue Richard Stallman talking about software patents at a recent University of Virginia conference on the topic. From my friends at Ars Technica:
“So many stupid insults—and mistakes!” shouted Richard Stallman, the father of the free software movement. “I proposed a way to solve the problem! It’s elegant, and it gets right to the point. Your criticisms are completely wrong.”
His solution? Ban all software patents.
Back to Ars:
In Stallman’s view, the idea that society might be able to eliminate “bad patents” while keeping good ones is a kind of Jedi mind trick. Offering patents as a reward for software development—a system where the prize is a right to shut down someone else—is fatally flawed.
“Consider the MP3 patent,” said Stallman. “That caused a lot of harm. It’s not trivial, it came from a research institute. But we can fund research institutes in other ways.”
The deprivation of some unnamed technology doesn’t excuse a system that allows some developers to be subject to legal attacks, Stallman continued. We could live without those things. “Yes, we can be better off without certain things,” said Stallman, finishing up his lecture to a flustered Duffy. “Maybe it wouldn’t be quite as good, but we would all be okay. None of us would be shafted.”
You’ll quickly pick up on a theme here. Stallman’s level of absolutist rhetoric is a little short on detail, but rich with summary-level generalization. Fatally flawed how? Has progress in software ground to a halt because of patents? “We can be better off without certain things”? What certain things? “Maybe it wouldn’t be quite as good, but we would all be okay. None of us would be shafted.”? So Stallman is conceding that the competitive advantage of being able to protect your innovations has actually improved our lives more than the alternative free-for-all? I don’t even know what the “it” he referrs to as “not being quite as good” is, but who is Richard Stallman to be the arbiter of how “okay” “it” is?
Another humorous bit from Ars, recounting Stallman’s appearance at another patent conference held at Santa Clara University:
His was the first talk on the agenda—and the only one of the day to not be streamed. “Streaming online would require use of [the] Microsoft Silverlight plug-in, which would pressure people to use proprietary software,” explained Andrew Chin, the law professor who introduced Stallman. “Dr. Stallman considers it wrong to pressure people to do that.” (The crowd was told a recording would be made available later in OGG or WebM format.)
This must be what Stallman is talking about when he says “Maybe it wouldn’t be quite as good, but we would all be okay.” It’s amazing that the streets aren’t lined with Molotov-toting protesters insisting on a software patent ban now.
If you drill down into Stallman’s core reasoning, the focus is on the “parts” of software. Bad analogy alert:
Patenting the math in software, at its core, wasn’t that different from patenting music, which must build on itself by necessity.
“Beethoven had lots of great ideas, and knew how to use them effectively,” Stallman continued. “He combined his new ideas with lots of familiar ideas, so that they were not so alien and incomprehensible that they were rejected. They shocked people for a while, but then people got used to them.
“The idea that anyone could, or would have to, reinvent music from zero is absurd,” he said. “It’s the same with computing.”
First of all, musicians and labels get sued all the time for lifting riffs from prior work. This hasn’t resulted in the need to reinvent music. Second of all, if we’re going to be all reductionist, aren’t all pharmaceuticals just re-jiggering of stuff you could find in any periodic table? I guess we should abolish those patents as well. The multiple billions of dollars invested by these companies to research their assets would probably push ahead full-steam without any IP protection. We’d probably be okay. Richard Stallman says so.
“The idea of really solving a problem strikes people as radical,” said Stallman.
If one defines “really” solving things with absolutist mandates, we wouldn’t call them “problems”.
“People think, we’ve got to look for partial solutions… well that’s a mistake. It wouldn’t do the whole job, and it would be harder to get it passed.”
As opposed to Stallman’s nuclear option, which would breeze through any private sector and legislative opposition. I wonder if Stallman even knows how many branches of government there are in this country.
“There are lots of software developers, they’re all threatened, and if we propose to protect them all, they will all have a reason to support it. Let’s propose a real solution.”
And now for our special mystery guest:
Stallman shared the stage with a surprising fellow speaker: Google general counsel Kent Walker.
Surprising? Show of hands?
“The patent arena is not a pretty place to be right now,” said Walker. “The troll problem is big, and getting bigger,” a growing tax on innovation. “Some of these are bottom-of-the-barrel patents,” he continued. “They cover common practices on the Internet, like showing an ad before a piece of content.” (That was likely a description of the patent granted to Ultramercial.)
Stallman and Walker should take their act on the road. Stallman is bad cop, Walker is slick cop. Scare the crap out of people with Stallman, who thinks that no software patent should exist, then follow up with the much more reasonable Walker and his “Modest Proposal.” Let’s start by making patents that have a “competitive advantage” subject to the same kinds of terms containing standards-essential patents.
On the lure of Stallman’s schtick:
I first started to understand the appeal of Stallman when I heard him speak at a 2007 event at San Francisco State University, especially his appeal to young people. He speaks in a language often missing from discussions of seemingly abstract concepts like patent laws. Lawyers speak about what is legal and what should be legal; Stallman begins with philosophy, with ethics, with how you should treat your neighbor.
In other words, Stallman begins at 30,000 feet and never drops to an altitude that would provide any insight into actually solving the problem.
Can a person program a new solution to a problem? Why should anyone be able to stop such a thing?
If the solution is novel, they should be able to. If the solution is ripped wholesale off the backs of someone that created it before you *cough* Android *cough*, then no – you shouldn’t be able to. Stallman reads like a shitty Platonic exchange: “Surely we can all agree on this…Warp 9…QED”
Since then, his views haven’t changed much. It’s the reception that has changed, he said; more companies, like Rackspace, are coming out against patenting software. Apple, the “number one patent aggressor” in Stallman’s view, is winning eye-popping verdicts against competitors—and losing big to patent trolls.
And who, by all reasonable accounts, is the most popular and innovative hardware/software company on the planet? Exactly.
We’re exposed every day to the lure of the absolute. Clean lines, perfect endings – wouldn’t life be so much simpler if we could all just aspire to our maximum potential without being hindered by laws, legislation, data caps and rush hour traffic? But reality isn’t absolute; it’s subject to the perspectives of others. When enough of them agree on a certain perspective, we refer to them generally as “rights”. The right to protect one’s property, intellectual or otherwise, is something we value highly in this country. And respecting other people’s property sometimes involves compromise. Treaties are compromise, alliances are compromise. Any contract you enter into is compromise. Life is compromise. Anyone trying to pave over the status quo with straight lines isn’t thinking realistically about a solution to the problem.