Sunday, June 15, 2014

No patent reform to foster innovation? How about innovation to foster patent reform?

I think you have heard of Elon Musk by now. If you haven't, confess and pray to the Church of Musk for forgiveness. Jokes aside, the guy is scarily awesome, so much, in fact, that I think he forgot how to fail, which is dangerous. His ideas, though, eerily mirror some of my own (he probably gets them from me, hmm). This post is about Musk's decision to publicize their Tesla patents and allow anyone to use the technology "in good faith". And I will argue that this is a kind of patent revolt which is just as significant as blogging.

A while ago I had these weird ideas and a lot of extra energy. It occurred to me that if I would invent some cool algorithm or think of a disruptively ingenious device I could patent it and make some money. As you know, I am not much of an entrepreneur (in fact, I am probably the antithesis of that) and so I asked some people how this patent thing works. I was amazed to learn of the huge amount of money required to file, the lack of security against rich competitors who would really want to take your idea without paying and so on and so on. I was more than amazed, I was angry. As I saw it, the system was created so only people having rich investors on their side could even begin to patent something. Otherwise, if you just want to claim the ownership of an idea, you have to pay a lot of money before you even begin planning to use your idea to make them. Banks would win. Again. Poor and brilliant scientists and technicians would lose. Again.

But then I heard about this principle that if I have an idea and publish it somewhere, I can't patent it anymore. The trick is that no one else can, either. Practically, whenever I have an idea, if I put it on my blog I ensure people will be able to use it without it being patented by some asshole. They can still change it into something else and patent that, but they can never stop you using the idea in the form that was published. So I do that whenever I can. Not that I have so many patent worthy ideas, but if I think something is useful enough, I put it out there to spite a system that was corrupted in order for capital rich organizations to be able to hold control over new ideas.

Enter Elon Musk. He just took a lot of the technological effort that he invested in for Tesla and made it public. It's not completely free, it's still their patent, but they pledge to leave you alone if you use it in a reasonable way. Of course, there is a catch, Musk is investing heavily in electric car battery manufacturing, so it is still in his best interest for other people to start building electric cars. But I honestly think he is finding solutions that benefit the world and also increase his options, instead of the other way around. Do you see the similarity in the idea, though? Instead of expecting lawmakers to reform patent law, you just circumvent the whole system by making your idea publicly available. It helps to previously invest in support systems for that tech, too. It's a deceptively simple idea, the equivalent of inventing steam engine, letting everybody know how to make one, while previously investing in coal.

In software development, you can sort of do that same thing. First of all, have an awesome idea, implement it, make it freely available for use and publish it in your blog. This seems like a very altruistic thing to do, maybe even naive, but think about your life afterwards. People will know your name, employers would separate you from the crowd of wannabe programmers. In a weird way, it is the equivalent of branding yourself, that personal marketing skill that most technicians lack completely, but translated in code. A form of "pay it forward", perhaps. The reason why this works is that the cost of sharing information is practically zero nowadays, while the information itself is generating informational capital linked to your person as the inventor. And in turn, this fame, the kudos, is translated into trust which turns into credit because "you are good for it". I still don't have it clear in my head, but I feel the system changing from the cash printed by governments, essentially IOUs for that government from the public, to a more diverse offer. It would still be credit, but based on idea capital, not gold in banks. Worth a thought.