Patents Remain Too Big a Barrier to Collaboration & Innovation

jzemlin's picture

I’ll be at The Atlantic’s Big Science Summit tomorrow with space explorers, energy researchers and robotics engineers. How did Zemlin get in, you ask? There’s more reason here than you think.

The Big Science community is looking for ways to fuel new breakthroughs that put America on more competitive ground for the future. The path to the future is to invest in our national strengths, a melting pot culture of inclusiveness and collaboration, while eliminating our weakness, a lack of investment in education and a completely warped patent system. To get there, we must first remove the remaining barriers to collaborative development: namely, patents.

The innovation and collaboration inherent in Linux and open source technologies can also fuel scientific breakthroughs and a burgeoning economy, but that innovation and collaboration is being threatened by a culture of paranoia and exploitation of the U.S. patent system. A recent New York Times story reported that Apple and Google are spending more on patent litigation than on research and development (R&D). The story also pointed to data from Stanford University: $20B has been wasted on patent litigation and patent purchases in just two years - in just the smartphone market.

This starts to illustrate why the U.S. has lost ground in the global science and technology space.

Most importantly and most disturbing, though, is how this culture of paranoia is discouraging our would-be entrepreneurs, the individuals who form the foundation of our economy, who are the most innovative among us, and who understand the power of collaboration. The same New York Times article tells the story of Michael Phillips who, after spending three decades developing software that began to attract the attention of both Apple and Google, was targeted by a patent owner. At this point in any scenario like this, the options for the entrepreneur are limited: death by lawsuit (go bankrupt trying to pay fight the case) or succumb and turn over all your hard work. In Phillips’ case, he ended up selling his company to the patent holder.

Together we can reform an aged patent system, one that again encourages young scientists and engineers to pursue invention and exploration. In parallel, we’ll need to increase investment in education and promote careers in science and technology. The Big Science community, like us, is looking for talent and how best to grow that talent for the future. Unfortunately, the United States is weak in relation to other areas of the world in graduating engineers and scientists. The Atlantic reports that the U.S. accounts for just four percent of the world’s bachelor’s degrees in engineering.

In the Linux community, we’re learning the best way to find and grow Linux talent for the future is through open development and collaboration. Regardless of economic background, degree level or location, anyone today can contribute to an open source project. Their code is their resume, and increasing Linux training opportunities are helping them get started. This open culture breaks down barriers for inclusion and is inspiring more people to pursue computer science careers. Similarly in the science and hardware communities, the Maker Movement is inspiring more people to get involved in science and to share their findings and, some speculate, can help transform the U.S. economy.

These things show promise for the future. We do understand the challenges for getting there. Let’s move our work forward together.