Pat(ent) It Forward

Since I didn’t get to discussing the second class last week, I will get to it now as a springboard to one of today’s topics. One of the non-market, decentralized information goods that has been produced is open-source software, notably GNU/Unix/Linux.

GNU – Background

I have been familiar with this platform for a while, having traveled in geek circles and socialized with programmers for many years. The opinion I have universally encountered was that it is a vastly superior operating platform than Windows, although most freely admit it is not quite user-friendly. I will confess that I have traveled in these circles as a hanger-on to programmers, hackers, and those more intimately familiar with the inner-workings of the tech world. (allowed to tag along because of my ability to debate the outcome of a Borg Cube v. Death Star matchup, it is doubtful that my limited html coding qualified me) Thusly, I have never tried Unix, though I do carry around a disk of it given to me at a sci/sci-fi convention during a panel discussion about its superiority.

So I cannot say for sure whether it is actually better, or just a required statement to give one proper Geek Cred – a leet for the ages? (more on geek cred later as a basis for the very persuasive skills the circle circles around) But I do believe that those I have spoken to were speaking honestly when they say it is a very good platform.

Notably, it is not the work of one individual. Its open-source meant it was free in two ways – one does not have to pay to use it, and one can fix and alter its code, both for general improvement, enhancement, and bug-fixing, and to personalize its functionality for a user’s unique needs. The result is a version that has been through many hands, adapted and changed in many ways, and one central version the result of changes in the vein of the former.


So if you’re the creator, how to prevent an individual from altering it slightly, then mass-marketing it for profit with your own copyright? Enter the GLA – General Licensing Agreement. The source code is not entirely public domain. Users who alter and distribute it are restricted by the license that did attach to the original, which has a self-replicating effect. One of the core terms of this license is that if you use and alter the program, you are obligated to attach an identical license to it. Each of Mickey’s broomsticks looks like the original.


The challenge that has been added to this topic from last week is the one of applying the same idea to patents. And true to the great weight of being at America’s Finest University – we have out own freshly minted patent to play with. Enter the Open Patent Project:

“On September 12, the US Patent and Trademark Office issued a patent to Charles Nesson, Jonathan Zittrain, Wendy Seltzer, and Alexander Macgillivray for a tool called The Question Tool. The Question Tool is based on a fairly simple concept, but truly opens up the possibility for communicating interactively with a very large audience. Roughly speaking, what it does is this:

  • Using a web interface, allows anyone to pose a question to the speaker/moderators
  • Using the same web interface, allows anyone to vote on the posed questions to indicate that they would like to see a particular question answered
  • Displays the questions in order of popularity so that the speaker/moderator can choose which questions to answer”

Among the challenges is the creation of a nickname for the patent version of a GLU – one that allows access to the patent but requires those using it to attach the same open agreement. Since “Patentleft” doesn’t have the same ring, a simple derivative won’t suffice.

The class wiki has a page for this (and other) projects. If I had more experience in patents, I would love to get involved. As it is, I’m like one of those programmers who didn’t have the know-how to design Unix from scratch, but could help find bugs to bring to attention – so as soon as those with more than a First Year Property class to go on begin the page for the draft license, I will dive in.

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