Sunday, October 29, 2006

Patents for good, patents for evil: the Blackboard case

Educause, an assosiation of professionals working to improve higher education through information technology, has written a letter to Blackboard about its recent actions in the intellectual-property arena. Basically, the letter expresses concern over Blackboard's lawsuit against Desire2Learn, another e-learning software group.

Course management systems were developed by the higher education community, which includes academics, organizations, and corporations. Ideas were freely exchanged, prototypes developed, and refinements continue to be made... a claim that implies this community creation can be patented by one organization is anathema to our culture.
In the old economy, a company's secrets were its lifeblood. You kept your information private because knowledge was power. Knowledge was limited, expensive, hard to get to. Well, now knowledge is cheap. Information travels freely, and secrets are hard to keep - what matters is what you do with an idea. In an age of openness, good execution (not information revelation) is the means that groups can use to distinguish themselves.

To my young and idealistic eyes, companies that insist on locking others out of the market are missing the point. The right way to do better than your competition is to actually do better than them, not prevent them from competing in the first place. Your company exists to provide your customers with the best possible service; how can you know yours is best if it's the only one available? If you think you're the best, what are you afraid of competition for?

The other core tenet is to promote innovation. The free exchange of ideas fosters innovation. The open sharing of ideas does not preclude commercialization or profiting from ideas... this law suit will certainly have a chilling effect on the open sharing of ideas in our community.

Intellectual property is necessary.As much as I dislike being under NDA for my SCOPE project, I understand why ours is there. Patents are wonderful tools. Theoretically, they free inventors to do the work they love to do without having to worry that they'll be taken advantage of. I find it sad when the same tools purported to give us the freedom to create are used to take away the freedom of others to do the same.

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