Serious issues of concern about internet patents

I would like to express a serious concern of historical importance and 
ethical and moral significance.

While I in fact derive income for internet commerce I also enjoy the freedom 
that the internet provides. I find this change of position on patents 
extremely distressing. Consider the following. Prior to the internet being 
made available to the general public in the early 90s most people accessed 
private networks. Compuserve, AOL and others were the on-line world, but they 
could not compete with the dearth of content that exploded with the internet. 
The internet was built around FREE and open technologies. If for instance 
someone had patented TCP/IP how could this diverse content be available? I 
submit that there are a lot of technologies far more substantial and crucial 
than many comparatively trivial patents that have been issued. 

I have experienced the frustration and anxiety of design issues that have 
arisen from the GIF patent issues. It seems absurd that there is a legal 
framework being considered which could be construed to provide a means to 
lock in a revenue base for which there are no charges being made until the 
base is locked. It seems unthinkable that the W3C would be behind it.

I submit that the internet could not have managed any substantial user base 
or even come into existence if it had not been free and open. I would also 
say that in a historical perspective what we do here today is so important 
that it may be difficult to gauge while looking at a huge pool of resources 
to siphon off. I believe human civilization was most dramaticallly impacted 
by the printing press and the exchange of information. However due to the 
physical cost of materials it favored those who had financial resources. The 
internet promises to be the greatest impact yet with free information. The 
prospects to advance the human condition are nearly unfathomable.

This brings me to what I believe is the essential immorality of restrictive 
patents constructed of and carried on the burgeoning free and open internet. 
The very concept of a patent is that it provides a temporary monopoly to 
someone who has developed something unique and serviceable. However on the 
internet this is an absurd notion in almost all cases.

1) In ever case these technologies are subordinate to and dependent on other 
free and open technologies like TCP/IP, HTTP, XML and others. If it is a 
matter of taking your bat and ball if others don't like the rules what if the 
core components were to fall under this situation? What if they started 
there? Again, it seems absurd that minor and fractional elements could 
regulate the whole which would likely not even exist if it were so regulated.

2) In most cases the notion that a single entity could in fact service the 
world population for years to come with patent in hand is also less than 
rational. In the case of something of the nature of LZW compression and GIFs 
it is simply a matter of how long it takes the average user to convert over 
to a new standard. In fact this fractionalizes standards unless there is some 
more substantial monopolistic leverage to impose them. This may have been 
more practical in the 1700s but not today.

3) The idea that entities would not develop these technologies without the 
ability to extract massive royalties as a government endorsed monopoly is 
also an argument without merit to day. From the perspective of open source 
developers we see the majority of the internet being served by those whose 
reward having the software. Alternately corporate motivations are sufficient 
without the lure of monopoly benefits with patents. I submit they would 
develop these technologies regardless.

I conclude my point on patents by saying that while I do not oppose all 
patents I believe that the public routes and methods of information exchange 
ought to remain patent free. I believe there is a substantial lesson in 
monopoly issues with Microsoft corporation. Once handed the lever to supply 
the operating system to most all PCs it becomes difficult to envision 
dislodging them from monopoly status. Any successful temporary monopoly on 
the internet will almost certain become a permenant one. We must oppose this.

I also believe we must insist that any standard which allows for pay 
services, which almost certainly are inevitable, guarantees certain 
1) Whatever is to be charged for should be so declared clearly so that 
companies and consumers can properly evaluate the playing field when deciding 
what to do. Consumer protection laws often penalize the "bait and switch" 
technique. We cannot place a temptation like this in the hands of corporate 
boards with our blessing.
2) Anything being charged for should be done so by virtue of content alone, 
NOT because of delivery unless the technology delivering is so exceptional or 
so involved that it is proportionally far more significant than the existing 
technologies it relies on. It should meet a standards test that it was in 
fact very clearly non-trivial and does require benefits to recover 
substantial development efforts.

In closing I believe the following. We have a debt to both those who have 
made the internet possible as well as posterity. That debt is that we keep it 
free for common content and we do not enhance the digital divide by creating 
means by which we move beyond the selective and understandable charges for 
content to where delivery and key technologies proverbially nickel and dime 
away what is potentially the greatest opportunity to enhance the human 
condition we have yet known. 

Forget your board of directors for a moment and consider where you will be in 
the history books... and whether the less fortunate will even be able to 
access them.

Thank you.
Eric Laffoon        Virtual Artisans
Web developer and open source programmer on Quanta Plus for KDE

Received on Saturday, 29 September 2001 21:45:27 UTC