March 19, 2006

A Perspective on “Free” Wireless Internet [10:41 pm]

Of course, it’s a little more complex than just this story, but it’s good to see the rhetorical structure of this argument. One counter-position to consider - what’s stopping cities from installing infrastructure for their own purposes ( emergency services, etc.) that citizens can piggyback onto, knowing that competing companies can always install better, for pay, services? And, of course, Google has plenty of truly market-based incentives to see that more people are on the network, don’t they? Strings Attached [pdf]

Still, they say, their citywide WiFi (CiFi, perhaps?) will be free. No question, free is good. My wireless service is expensive (although, come to think of it, not that much more than decent cable-TV service). And if the good taxpayers of Boston see fit to foot my bill, who am I to argue?

But argue I will. This is a well-meaning but terrible idea, an unnecessary intrusion by politicians into the private sector, one that would create a government-sanctioned monopoly while stultifying innovation. It’s Minitel – the disastrous French two-way proto-Internet – all over again.

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Crichton on US Patenting [10:29 pm]

Op-Ed Contributor: This Essay Breaks the Law

Unfortunately for the public, the Metabolite case is only one example of a much broader patent problem in this country. We grant patents at a level of abstraction that is unwise, and it’s gotten us into trouble in the past. Some years back, doctors were allowed to patent surgical procedures and sue other doctors who used their methods without paying a fee. A blizzard of lawsuits followed. This unhealthy circumstance was halted in 1996 by the American Medical Association and Congress, which decided that doctors couldn’t sue other doctors for using patented surgical procedures. But the beat goes on.

Companies have patented their method of hiring, and real estate agents have patented the way they sell houses. Lawyers now advise athletes to patent their sports moves, and screenwriters to patent their movie plots. (My screenplay for “Jurassic Park” was cited as a good candidate.)

Where does all this lead? It means that if a real estate agent lists a house for sale, he can be sued because an existing patent for selling houses includes item No. 7, “List the house.” It means that Kobe Bryant may serve as an inspiration but not a model, because nobody can imitate him without fines. It means nobody can write a dinosaur story because my patent includes 257 items covering all aspects of behavior, like item No. 13, “Dinosaurs attack humans and other dinosaurs.”

Such a situation is idiotic, of course. Yet elements of it already exist. And unless we begin to turn this around, there will be worse to come.

Also, this earlier one: Patenting Life

YOU, or someone you love, may die because of a gene patent that should never have been granted in the first place. Sound far-fetched? Unfortunately, it’s only too real.

Gene patents are now used to halt research, prevent medical testing and keep vital information from you and your doctor. Gene patents slow the pace of medical advance on deadly diseases. And they raise costs exorbitantly: a test for breast cancer that could be done for $1,000 now costs $3,000.

Why? Because the holder of the gene patent can charge whatever he wants, and does. Couldn’t somebody make a cheaper test? Sure, but the patent holder blocks any competitor’s test. He owns the gene. Nobody else can test for it. In fact, you can’t even donate your own breast cancer gene to another scientist without permission. The gene may exist in your body, but it’s now private property.

This bizarre situation has come to pass because of a mistake by an underfinanced and understaffed government agency. The United States Patent Office misinterpreted previous Supreme Court rulings and some years ago began — to the surprise of everyone, including scientists decoding the genome — to issue patents on genes.

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