[lug] Very short conference report

Chris Riddoch socket at peakpeak.com
Mon Jan 28 19:04:34 MST 2002

Hi, everyone.

I went to the conference at CU on the regulation of information
systems yesterday and today. I was thinking of trying to write an
article about it, but I was absolutely dazed by the level of
discussion on the panels. My notes are scattered and I didn't end up
understanding enough of the legal discussion to even summarize much of

In any case, I think you might be interested in a question I tried to
pose to the panel on intellectual property, which consisted of:

* Julie Cohen - Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center
* Thomas Nachbar - Associate Professor of Law, University of Virginia.
* Mark Lemley - Professor of Law, Boalt Hall, University of California at Berkeley, and Director of the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology
* Doug Lichtman - Assistant Professor of Law, University of Chicago Law School
* Maureen O'Rourke - Professor of Law, Boston University School of Law
* Molly Shaffer Van Houweling - Fellow, Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society

This is what I'd written in my palmpilot before going up to the

   I'd like to be pragmatic for a moment and ask a question from
   perhaps a naive engineer's perspective on the legal world, because
   this all seems very theoretical. Looking at reality: many free
   software developers would argue that nobody would buy a car with
   the hood welded shut, and feel that the best innovation comes about
   through open platforms. Lawrence Lessig is considered a great hero
   of Linux developers, whether he wants to be or not, I imagine the
   popular website 'slashdot' makes him feel tarnished sometimes.

   My argument is that patents support the oligopoly of large software
   corporations with tens of thousands of patents who trade them
   amongst themselves like baseball cards, which I believe causes a
   chilling effect in independent software developers for this reason:
   the patent system is abused by overly general patents which prevent
   competition at all costs. Many of us believe rather cynically that
   antitrust law has been rendered toothless, every politician has
   been bought, and things can only get worse. Patents as they are now
   do not promote a meritocracy of ideas. Because a tremendous amount
   of the genuine innovation in software has come from the free
   software world, and the costs of bringing questionable patents to
   court are tremendous, my question is this:

   What can individual developers of Linux do when faced with the
   imminent danger of violating someone's patent by developing any
   software at all, besides wait around to get sued?

Three of the panelists (I forget which three) answered me, and they
all said basically the same thing: Get a patent.

Afterwards, I spoke with one of the panelists, to respond: "That's
exactly the problem, though. So I get a patent. They've got a few
thousand more, and I don't have half a million dollars to fight them
in court."

The answer to that amounted to a verbal shrug. Not that I was
expecting any better answer. There were a lot of very influential
people there, and the point I was trying to make was that patent law,
as it is, does virtually *nothing* for independent software

The truly unfortunate thing was that in the interests of time, I
abbreviated what I'd written to the point of speaking off-the-cuff,
and I got extremely nervous part-way through, and basically fumbled
anything resembling grace in the process of asking the
question. Speaking in front of a roomful of lawyers is rather

Oh, well. I hope I didn't make a complete idiot out of myself.

Chris Riddoch       | epistemological
socket at peakpeak.com | humility

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