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Knowledge: the key to success

Software patents as a restraining influence on the free flow of knowledge

Without a doubt, there are many arguments both for and against the ie of software patents. While many of these arguments are based on a technical framework, there is a more fundamental basis for the rejection of software patents. In essence, software patents act as a restraining influence on the free flow of knowledge.

We often hear of the "information society" being knowledge-based and knowledge-driven. Computer software epitomizes such a paradigm. The code contained within a program is merely a set of instructions based on what is known or can be learned from the hardware available. It is the mechanisms for information input and output through this hardware which enable users to interact with computers, and which differentiates these types of machines from others.

Software, as a result, is foremost a "knowledge" product. Subsequently, knowledge (and the ideas they produce) is most efficient when there are no restrictions on its use (i.E., it’s free). Admittedly, producing knowledge can be expensive — sometimes very expensive. Even so, it must be recognised that knowledge is a cumulative commodity: existing knowledge is the most important element in producing new knowledge. Not only is knowledge most efficient when it’s free, but the fast and full dissemination of knowledge indubitably raises its economic value.

Consequently, delimiting the use of software through the vehicle of patents invariably stifles innovation and the application of numerous combinations of different kinds of knowledge. This includes research and technical development (rtd), which is compromised as it becomes geared more toward profit-oriented activities (establishing patents being one such activity). This, when it should be neutral and indifferent to such considerations.

Along these lines, software becomes a market commodity, with computer code — expressed in the form of a language — treated as a trade secret which is to be protected, as opposed to knowledge which is to be shared. This, too, runs counter the basic precepts that have traditionally driven the free flow of information and unhindered access (which, incidentally, was one of the driving forces behind the development of the internet). Such a framework clearly does not promote innovation.

The best example of a successful, non-patented language, which can be described as a form of open source software development, is that of hypertext markup language (html). The success of the internet not only has to do with a graphical interface that stretches across different platforms, it also had to do with the fact that html code is freely available. Not only has this enabled innovation in this area, it has also contributed to more users using the medium and becoming more involved in the generation of new knowledge than otherwise would have.

Finally, it must be realised that in face of the so-called "information society" a patent is an outdated mechanism that is no longer relevant nor applicable in this "digital age" of ours. There are many alternative models already in use: the development and dissemination of linux is but one example of a solution which both encourages innovation and provides an environment of competition among software developers. Thus, more time and effort should be put toward developing such alternative models rather than looking for ways to somehow preserve an archaic regime within a new world order.

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