Patenting reality


(I was about to post something about this when I noticed the Stephen Fry nomination of Turing’s Universal Machine as a great British “innovation” and decided to write about that first … but the two dovetail as I hope you can see.)


Patent (Photo credit: brunosan)

I was alerted to this by an article in the latest edition of the New Scientist (subscription link) -on whether scientific discoveries should be patentable. The New Scientist piece by Stephen Ornes argues strongly and persuasively that the maths at the heart of software should be protected from patents. But having now read the original article Ornes is replying to, I think he has missed the full and horrific scale of what is being proposed by David Edwards, a retired associate professor of maths for the University of Georgia at Athens.

Of course I am not suggesting that Edwards himself is evil, but his proposal certainly is: because he writes, in the current issue of the  Notices of the American Mathematical Society (“Platonism is the Law of the Land”) that not just mathematical discoveries should be patentable but, in fact, all scientific discoveries should be: indeed he explicitly cites general relativity as an idea that could have been covered by a patent.

Edwards is direct in stating his aim:

Up until recently, the economic consequences of these restrictions in intellectual property rights have probably been quite slight. Similarly, the economic consequences of allowing patents for new inventions were also probably quite slight up to about 1800. Until then, patents were mainly import franchises. After 1800 the economic consequences of allowing patents for new inventions became immense as our society moved from a predominately agricultural stage into a predominately industrial stage. Since the end of World War II,our society has been moving into an information stage, and it is becoming more and more important to have property rights appropriate to this stage. We believe that this would best be accomplished by Congress amending the patent laws to allow anything not previously known to man to be patented.

Part of me almost wants this idea to be enacted, because like the failure of prohibition of alcohol it would teach an unforgettable lesson. But as someone who cares about science and the good that science could do for humanity it is deeply chilling.
For instance, it is generally accepted that there is some flaw in our theories of gravity (general relativity) and quantum mechanics in that they do not sit happily beside one another. Making them work together is a great task for physicists. And if we do it – if we find some new theory that links these two children of the 20th century – perhaps it will be as technologically important as it will be scientifically significant (after all, quantum mechanics gave us the transistor and general relativity the global positioning system). But if that theory was locked inside some sort of corporate prison for twenty or twenty-five years it could be that the technological breakthroughs would be delayed just as long.