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Automating Invention is Robert Plotkin's blog on the impact of computer-automated inventing on the future of invention and patent law.
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July 15, 2005
Does open source development produce innovations?
Anything Under the Sun Made by Man has an interesting posting questioning whether open source software development produces innovations. The author, a patent agent, relates that a software developer client of his "was of the feeling that nothing innovative has come from Open Source Software, nor will it ever. He cited several examples, including Linux, where a viable and useful piece of commercial software had been rewritten by OSS developers and released for free."
It is true that most of the effort in open source development to date has been directed to reproducing the functionality of existing software, such as operating systems, compilers, web servers, and graphical user interfaces. But although such projects may not produce innovations per se, they have other benefits. The original motivation for developing GNU/Linux was not to produce a new operating system, but to produce one that could be used and modified by its users without engaging in copyright infringement. Proponents of open source also claim that open source development produces software with fewer bugs and security holes than software produced using closed development models.
Also worth noting is that most open source projects produce platforms, protocols, and interfaces, rather than applications. These kinds of end products are valuable because they facilitate standardization and the development of specific applications and data formats consistent with the adopted standards. From a commercial perspective, it can be beneficial for such standards to be "open" -- not owned by any private entity -- because they increase the pie for everyone who is in the business of providing products and services consistent with the standards.
There is a connection between all of this and automated inventing. Should John Holland have attempted to patent the basic features of the genetic algorithm? In one sense, genetic algorithms are a platform for inventing and for problem-solving more generally. The arguments above would therefore imply that keeping genetic algorithms generally "open," as Holland did, was the right strategy for maximizing innovation. On the other hand, many patents have issued on specific applications of genetic algorithms. Such applications may have been kept as trade secrets, thereby depriving the public of knowledge about them, if patent protection had not been available.
This is all to say that developing legal rules to encourage optimal innovation is tricky business.
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