W3C home > Mailing lists > Public > www-patentpolicy-comment@w3.org > October 2001

The well of ideas

From: Phil Howard <phil@ipal.net>
Date: Mon, 1 Oct 2001 03:14:37 -0500 (CDT)
To: www-patentpolicy-comment@w3.org
Message-Id: <20011001081437.DEDF4231@vega.ipal.net>
Ahmed had wasted his first wish foolishly, and his second wish
just to undo his first.  Now he had one more wish remaining and
he was determined to do it right this time.  He was now determined
to do something for others instead of for himself.  He saw the
suffering in his desert town.  There was only one well in the
town, and it was frequently drying up, or so everyone was told by
the old man who owned it.  The old man charged a handsome price
to drink from the well; only on the days it was flowing.

"I wish ...", he said as he paused, thinking carefully to make
sure he did not make yet another mistake, for he had no fourth
wish with which to correct any mistake.  "I wish for a well which
shall flow abundantly at all times, and provide water for all the
people, and cannot be owned by anyone, or taxed or otherwise held
for any ransom."

The genie acknowledged his wish and promptly vanished, never to be
seen again.  Now he wondered if he would have what he wished for
as he emerged from his small tent to find a noise near the center
of town.  So he went to see what this was.

When he arrived at the center of town, he saw before him a sight
never had anyone seen in any desert town before.  Right in the
center of town there was a might gusher of water springing forth.
So much water that it was flowing down one of the streets and went
flowing out into the desert for a mile before drying up.

No one had known that it was Ahmed who had wished for this.  Even
he was unsure that it was his wish that had brought such a bounty.
He told no one.  Surely they would not believe him anyway.  But
his real desire was for his town to prosper and be happy, and so
it was.  And so, Ahmed was happy.

For 10 years the well did flow.  Night and day it did flow.  The
trade routes across the desert changed over the years to come by
way of the town.  The people had built a great trough to make it
so a thousand camels could drink from the water at the same time.
No one had even seen a hundred camels at one time before the day
the great well sprang up.  Now there were hundreds of traders and
thousands of camels.  The more that drank from the well, the more
it gushed forth.

No one paid for any water, but the people of the town became rich
anyway, because so much trade came by that everything else was
being bought and sold.  The town prospered greatly, and even Ahmed
had become richer than his very first wish had made him.

Why was the old man digging a new well?  He had toiled on it for
two years, he and his six sons and twenty grandsons.  They already
had one well that flowed only some, and now another?  But water
did come from his new well regularly, but only one bucket at a
time as before.  Why was he doing this, Ahmed wondered.

Another year had passed and not only was the town prospering, but
even nearby towns which had no magic wells were also prospering
just because the trade routes were larger than they ever had been.
Ahmed travelled to see the wonders of his magic well and how it
had affected all the people in so many towns.  There was plenty
of trade through all the land, and so many new things to be traded
that even Ahmed could not have imagined to wish for had he even a
thousand wishes.

Ahmed had travelled for almost a year in his land and was now
returning home to his town which was now thirty times larger than
it was many years before.  He looked forward to sleeping again in
his house, which had replaced his small tent.  But as he arrived
home, he saw what he could not yet imagine.

A long line of people had formed in front of the well the old man
and his family had dug up.  He was bring up water from his well,
and charging more for this water than he had ever charged before.
And the people were paying for it.  Ahmed came to one man in the
line and ask why?  The man said "I must drink, and here is the
place for water."

"What of the great magic well?" Ahmed asked, careful to not say he
had wished for one that would flow forever.  "Is it not flowing?"
"It is" the man in line said, "but it is poison".

Terrified, Ahmed rushed into the center of town only to see the
well still gushing forth, but no one drinking of it, nor anyone
watering their camels, nor filling their flasks.  Walls had been
built up around it.  As Ahmed approach the well to check the water
someone recognized him and came to him and warned him.  "Over a
thousand people have died after you left." he said.  "The poison
is slight, but if you drink more than one drink every two days it
will cause you a horrible sickness, and if you continue, you will
surely die, as did my wife and half of my children."

"How did this happen?" Ahmed demanded to know.  "The old man who
has the other wells, it must be he who has done this." came the
terrifying answer.  "He came to the well one day with a small
golden chalice and filled it, then poured it back in and laughed."
The man continued, "that day two thousand became sick, and the
next day three hundred people and three thousand camels died."

As the years went on, the great well did continue to flow.  It did
not stop, not even in the greatest of droughts and famines.  The
old man now had three wells from which he sold water, and owned
almost all the land in and around the town.  No one was allowed to
dig new wells.  Most of the traders stopped coming.  Few people
remained in the town.  The riches had come to an end, except for
one family.  The old man now had three wells and they flowed as
well as any well normally did.  His business was brisk, and it
made him and his family rich.  He was even richer than he was in
the time of the great well.  But no one else was.

But soon the town dwindled to just a few people.  The old man had
passed away, and most of his family moved on to other towns in the
land.  Two of his sons stayed, but without the traders coming in
such numbers as during the great well, even they were no longer

Ahmed was thirsty, and grabbed two coins and went down to the well
still run by the old man's two sons.  "One drink" he asked, as he
held out his hand offering the two coins.  "Sorry, the well is not
flowing today.  Come back tomorrow and bring four coins."  Ahmed
wondered if maybe he should just take one drink from the magic
well.  But he knew he could not do that as often as he needed to

And Ahmed soon moved away to another town, not wanting to even see
the great well anymore, for it was such an ugly sight.

Today, the ideas of the thousands are the great well of bounty
that flows into our technological economy.  We all prosper from
such a well, but no one prospers above the others.  It is shared
and we all prosper equally in our own way.  Those who would want
to change things so the well flows only for them would seek to
stop the well from flowing.  Since they cannot stop it, the best
they can do is poison it.  Everyone prospers when everyone shares
in that prosperity.  Poison the well of ideas, and the prosperity
only comes to those who have the poison.  But even their level of
prosperity, while more than the others, will diminish.

So many patents do not serve to advance ideas, but only serve to
corner markets.  Most patents do not bring water to the well, but
only poison it.

Technology runs at such a pace the patent office can no longer do
the things it needs to do.  The patent office just leaves it up to
the courts to decide which is valid and which is not, so they will
just issue all but the most obviously duplications.  Few ever get
taken to court because the cost of doing that is so high.  Patents
may be intended to advance the science and the arts, but today
they are not doing this at a level anywhere near what should be
expected from the number issued.  One of the greatest advances we
have seen in the last several years, the internet, has advanced
the science and the arts with virtually no patents at all.

Unpoisoned ideas are what makes us all prosper, and when we all
share in that prosperity, then it is the greatest prosperity.

Phil Howard
Received on Monday, 1 October 2001 04:14:50 UTC

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