The practical problem with software patents

Venkatesh Hariharan recently wrote an article titled The practical problem with software patents, a subject near and dear to my heart. He draws on the same research that I have cited in the past, the book “Patent Failure: How Judges, Bureaucrats, and Lawyers Put Innovators at Risk,” by Boston University professors, James Bessen & Michael J. Meurer, but I confess that he shows both greater insights and certainly a better sense of humor than I do when I write abou the subject.

It is certain that Venky is a better writer than I: he was a full-fledged journalist while I was writing phrases in C, a language where the comma operator is frowned upon and where a period never ends a sentence-that’s the job of the semicolon. But more important than mere flattery is the fact that Venky’s Indian perspective is particularly valuable in this time of rampant globalization. If there is one thing that the global economic crisis of 2008 has taught us, it is that when an economically bone-headed idea is so deeply entrenched that nobody stops to question it, and that when such a bone-headed idea becomes adopted as a de facto international standard, then any failure becomes a global failure.

There is no question that as a concept, software patents are about as helpful to innovation as unregulated credit default swaps are to hedging risky financial bets. The question is how to protect ourselves from the negative effects of a terrifically one-sided view. Ten years ago I used to subscribe to the theory that the Internet made the concept of nation-states completely obsolete. Today, I now believe that one feature of a nation-state is that it represents a useful impediment to progress. That is to say, when things are working, it means that some efficiency is lost, but when things fail, it means that things may not fail as catastrophically as they might in a system of monoculture.

Venky’s reading of Bessen and Meurer is important for Indians to understand as they plot their positions in the world of trade and intellectual property (which is perhaps why his article was picked up by the Economic Times). But it is also vital reading for those of us not living in India, because it helps us to understand aspects of our own economic reality that we may have ceased to question. In that regard, and to the extent that you are reading my writings from the same part of the world where I am writing them-his take on the subject is worth ten times what I can teach.

Disclaimer: Venkatesh Hariharan is a colleague of mine at Red Hat.