Why software patents are stupid: "many people see the next step forward at the same time"

Software patents exist, in theory, to spur innovation. In reality, however, they stifle innovation by making it extremely difficult to write programs without violating an existing patent or — more often — many existing patents. Patents do little to encourage innovation because most software inventions are pretty obvious to multiple people by the time they’re patented because the ideas underlying them emerge naturally from other recent innovations.

Ezra Klein nails the essence of why most software patents are ridiculous:

[I]t’s not the details of Zuckerberg’s life that mislead so much as the decision to focus on Zuckerberg at all. The movie recasts a story of inevitable technological change as the saga of a socially inept genius, two or three of his most important relationships and the social pressures of Harvard University. That makes for a better film, of course. But it misses the richer drama behind transformative innovations like Facebook, and it’s part and parcel of the way we misunderstand, and thus impede, innovation.

“The idea of the lone genius who has the eureka moment where they suddenly get a great idea that changes the world is not just the exception,” says Steven Johnson, author of “ Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation ,” “but almost nonexistent.”

And that’s because innovation isn’t really about individuals.

I was not born physically or mentally superior to my grandparents. But I would have been much likelier to invent Facebook than they were. The natural capabilities of human beings don’t change much from year to year, but their environments do, and so do the technology and store of knowledge they can access. Better sanitation lets people live in cities, where they can learn from one another. Transportation and communication advances allow ideas to mingle across distances that, a thousand years ago, they would never have traversed. The development of the Internet makes the coding of social networks possible.

When these advances happen, they happen to many people simultaneously, so many people tend to see the next step forward at the same time. In 2003, we were all social network geniuses, at least compared with everyone in 1993.

Posted by James on Wednesday, October 13, 2010