FLOSS is to software what patents were to historical tangible inventions

I wrote the following as a reply to an ITBusiness.ca article written by Shane Schick titled Truth, justice and the open source way which discussed FLOSS and the patent system.


I believe that FLOSS is to software what the patent system was for tangible inventions of physical things in the past.

Historically we had limited communications technologies and mobility slowing down collaboration. Inventions of tangible things took a lot of time and energy to move from design to prototype to distributable product. Within this context patents solved important problems. Without governments granting a temporary monopoly to the first inventor there would be too much risk to trying to develop ideas, and too much of an incentive to keep the ideas secret. Far too many inventions were kept secret and lost with the death of the inventor. A patent filing required a full disclosure of the invention such that someone skilled in the art could study, replicate and improve upon it, with the 20 year monopoly representing the slower realities of the day.

We now have much more advanced communication, transportation and other technologies which allow faster collaboration and movement from design to distributable product for tangibles, suggesting a need to reduce the patent term far below 20 years.

We have old-economy monopolist thinkers that are seeking to map these outdated incentive structures for the production of tangibles to intangible information processes like software and business models which have none of the traits that gave rise to the patent system.

When you look at what the patent system was designed to do hundreds of years ago, and map it to the modern day software economy, what you end up with is Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS). The creativity is fully disclosed via structured design (source code) such that practitioners in the art are able to "run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software". There is no need to have a government granted monopoly, with such monopolies historically considered anti-American, since moving from structured design (source code) to shippable binaries is an automated process accomplished by a compiler. Software also has a large first-mover advantage such that being first offers benefits without any need for government intervention in the marketplace.

Like the over-prescription of antibiotics have lead to serious health risks, the over-prescription of outdated incentive models to modern times has lead to serious chills against innovation.

Russell McOrmond
Ottawa, Ontario
FLOSS author and advocate http://flora.ca
CLUE Policy Coordinator http://cluecan.ca