In college I knew a guy named Dale. He was quiet, funny, particularly self-possessed for a 20-year-old. I think he married his college girlfriend, who was also self-possessed (and beautiful) though not as quiet. Dale was a few years older than me and during his senior year, I watched him while his ambitious classmates pursued their first "real" jobs with great fervor, the staccatto pulse of their dot-matrix printers producing resumes by the yard. All the while Dale did nothing. After graduation he biked through Europe with friends. When they came home he married his girlfriend and moved to an island in the South Pacific. Later I heard he was living in San Francisco at the Four Seasons. You've no doubt surmised that there was something extraordinary about Dale--he had an aura. This was all due a single fortuitous thing: many, many years before his great grandfather had invented the toaster. Or maybe it was a drill bit for oil. Or some part that went into every camera in the world. Whatever it was, all throughout college it was simply described like this: "Oh that's just Dale--his grandfather has some kind of patent on something."
Patents are the Saudi oil, the Dutch tulips, the Goldman CDOs and the Great American Novel (cum movie deal) all rolled into one. A patent is the lottery ticket that gives and gives. And because patents are increasingly the source of the greatest wealth accumulation in the world, the system is under assault. Last year Mark Cuban endowed "The Mark Cuban Chair to Eliminate Stupid Patents" at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Software patents are notorious: Microsoft has patented the Page Up/Page Down function! Amazon patented the one-click purchase, though as a business method, not a specific invention. Critics say patent protection crushes innovation. Proponents say it ensures it. The EFF wants, as a start, to limit tech patents to five years. That would take a bite out of the $30 billion-a-year patent litigation business. Germany and now New Zealand have said software is not an invention. NZ banned software patents altogether (kind of). This brings into focus what's sure to be a much harder look at patents in the future--not just for software but for even more ethically complicated issues like Monsanto's genetically-modified seeds. A fresh look at patents, despite deeply entrenched interests, seems to be coming. And that's good. Because I really, really admired Dale. I liked his style and the way he operated in the world. But he never invented anything. // Joseph Mackin
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