Patently Absurd

Brad Feld has a good post up about software patents where he argues that they should be abolished.

I completely agree with Brad about software patents, I think they are useless as a business tool.

Until they are abolished however, I encourage all of our portoflio companies to file for as many as they need for defensive purposes. I posted a cliche of the week on this last year.

But I’d like to dig deeper on this issue of Intellectual Property (IP) protection.  We, as a country, have had a policy of broad intellectual propery protections (copywrights, patents, etc) as a means to foster innovation.

As it was told to me, the idea is to encourage people to come up with innovative ideas by giving them long term exclusive rights to those ideas. I am sure that many of you who read this blog have a deeper understanding of the prinicipals behind intellectual property rights and the logic behind them so feel free to weigh in on this in the comments.

I suppose that there is some logic to that argument, but having spent the past twenty years of my life working with people who are risking their time, energy, and money (and the money of my firm and our partners) on innovative ideas, I honestly don’t see the logic in our patent system and some of the copyright system.

If you look at the arts for example, innovation by one artist leads to innovation by another artist.  If Picasso had patented cubism, would we have had the burst of energy around that way of thinking about painting?  If Chuck Berry had patented his approach to rythm and blues, would we have gotten Keith Richards?  If Shakespeare had patented his approach to tragedies and comedies, would that have stifled or encouraged innovation in theater and literature?

My point is this.  Innovation is an evolution. Everybody takes from everybody else. A truly competitve darwinian system where it’s survival of the fittest may produce orders of magnitude more innovation than a system where someone gets to keep a lid on their invention (if in fact it is their invention which is a serious problem with our current system).

I think of the patent system in our country a bit like the tenure system in our academic institutions.  It protects ideas and people that may not deserve to be protected and it allows for underperformance and it stifles creativity and energy.

Clearly we cannot abolish our system of intellectual property overnight.  Many billions of dollars (including tens of millions of capital I manage) has been invested in companies that are using intellectual property protection as a competitive weapon.  If there is going to be change, it must be gradual.

But I am encouraging all of us, the readers of this blog, other bloggers, academics, politicians, public policy wonks, and anyone else who cares about innovation in our country and the world at large to think hard about a world without patents and less intellectual property protection broadly speaking and what impact that would have on innovation and the flow of capital around innovation.

I believe we need a new way in the years to come.  Our current approach is holding us back, not taking us forward.