All patents are theft

If necessity is the mother of invention, patents are its delinquent offspring, providing stumbling blocks to innovation and progress, inhibiting the free exchange of ideas, and restricting our knowledge of how things work, says Richard Hillesley…

Richard Hillesley

Pablo Picasso is supposed to have said that “all art is theft”. The assertion may be controversial, but the intention is clear – the creative process, which relies on the evolution of techniques, observation and criticism, is an assimilation of that which has gone before, and all creativity, whether artistic, technological or scientific, walks a thin line between innovation and originality, plagiarism and parody. Even the idea that art is theft is a common place among artistic communities. Andy Warhol took this concept a few stages further. During a 1966 interview he told his interviewer; “Why don’t you ask my assistant Gerard Malanga some questions? He did a lot of my paintings.”

Linus Torvalds himself noted in another context, when rebutting arguments against open source by Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s senior vice president in May 2001, “I wonder if Mundie has ever heard of Sir Isaac Newton? [Newton] is not only famous for having basically set the foundations for classical mechanics (and the original theory of gravitation, which is what most people remember, along with the apple tree story), but he is also famous for how he acknowledged the achievement: ‘If I have been able to see further, it was only because I stood on the shoulders of giants.'”

Newton’s remark was intended as a derogatory comment in the margins of a letter to his diminutive contemporary, the scientist Robert Hooke, and was not an original observation, but tells a wider truth, that the creative process and the discovery of ideas is very seldom the product of one man’s work in isolation, but an accumulation of what has gone before.

Much of modern intellectual thought has defined itself by questioning the rites of authorship, authenticity and identity. This paradox lies at the heart of the debate about ‘Intellectual Property Rights’ and the ‘ownership’ of ideas – a debate in which the Linux and free software movement has found itself embroiled, directly through the patents crisis and the convolutions of copyright law, and less directly through its relationship with the Net.

Free software has been successful way beyond the expectations of its proponents and its detractors, appealing to a far wider audience than might have been predicted, but as Richard Stallman is quick to remind us, there is still some way to go: “The only reason we have a wholly free operating system,” he has said, “is because of the movement that said ‘we want an operating system that is wholly free, not 90 per cent free.’ If you don’t have freedom as a principle, you can never see a reason not to make an exception. There are constantly going to be times when for one reason or another there’s some practical convenience in making an exception.”

By its very nature free software challenges modern conventions of ownership, and its continuing existence and the blossoming of ideas that free software represents, is directly threatened by the extension and proliferation of trivial and contestable patents over the last two or three decades.

Software uses language as a means of interacting with the millions of on and off switches that comprise a computer. The sets of instructions that are contained in a computer language, or any other computer program, rely on basic structures that are common to all computer languages, and have evolved over half a century of shared development.

The most famous expression of this truth was provided by Bill Gates in a Microsoft internal ‘Challenges and Strategy’ memo, dated May 16,1991. “If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today’s ideas were invented and had taken out patents”, he wrote, “the industry would be at a complete stand-still today.”

Rather more revealingly, Gates concluded that the “solution” to the problem of patents was “patenting as much as we can… A future start-up with no patents of its own will be forced to pay whatever price the giants choose to impose. That price might be high: Established companies have an interest in excluding future competitors.”

Just one of the many compelling arguments against patents for software, as in other parts of our lives, is that invention and innovation in software is cumulative, and depends entirely on the efforts of others who have gone before – and that this will continue to be the case with every small development in the field of programming. Good programmers invent new processes every day, and other good programmers use these processes to make further inventions. That is, and always has been, the nature of the job. To assign patents to these small inventions, which are effectively expressions of speech, is to stop innovation in its tracks. This matters because code runs our lives. As Lawrence Lessig puts it: “These machines run us. Code runs these machines. What control should we have over this code?”

If necessity is the mother of invention, patents are its delinquent offspring, providing stumbling blocks to innovation and progress, inhibiting the free exchange of ideas, and restricting our knowledge of how things work.