Is it the beginning of the end for the patent system? Last week, a US Court of Appeals decision eliminated most patents on business methods and software, but some still feel that the very system meant to reward inventors is stifling innovation. Many a scifi plot has hinged on who owns a particular technology, and it seems most writers agree that the system is due for a change.The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi: The alien Nidu are not the most popular race on Earth, so it’s not surprising when an anti-Nidu agent stages a flatulent assassination against one of the Nidu diplomats. The Nidu are pissed, but offer Earth one chance to avoid war: obtain for them the Android’s Dream, a rare sheep used in Nidu coronation ceremonies. The ruling Nidu clan owns the patent on the sheep’s DNA, in perpetuity, and few are permitted to breed it. The problem is, someone is killing off all the sheep. Are patents a pro or a con? Con. The ruling Nidu clan uses their ownership of the sheep to stay in power since they’re the only ones who own the sheep necessary for the coronation sacrifice. Of course, by limiting the breeding of the sheep, they screw themselves over when the sheep start dying off. The Venetian Court by Charles Harness: Charles Harness was himself a patent attorney, and often cast patent lawyers as his heroes. Inventor Ellen Welles develops a new product called Fiber K. Unfortunately, a megacorporation that uses a supercomputer to churn out inventions has beaten her to the patent. Too bad for her, since patent infringement is a capital offense. So she hires Quentin Thomas, patent attorney extraordinaire. Are patents a pro or a con? Con. Harness neatly exaggerates the devastation individuals and companies face when they discover they’re infringing some one else’s patent. He also foresaw the rise of patent trolls, companies that file and buy up as many patents as possible only to extort licensing fees from other businesses.
“Elimination” by John Campbell: An inventor who has discovered a way to can and transport electricity goes to his late father’s friend, an attorney, to apply for a patent. The attorney, doubtful that such a revolutionary invention should be made public, proceeds to tell the inventor about the greatest invention in the world, and how it almost destroyed its inventor. Are patents a pro or a con? Con. At the beginning of the story, the patent attorney suggests that someone could quietly purchase the patent and destroy it, ensuring this life-saving technology never sees the light of day. In actually, the patent would make electricity in a can a matter of public record, and the owner could only hold it back from the world for 20 years.
The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis: The alien Thomas Newton comes to Earth to build a spaceship to shuttle refugees from his home planet to Earth. To raise money, he patents his race’s advanced technology and sets himself up as an entrepreneur. Are patents a pro or a con? Actually, one of the few Pros. True, the patent system is meant for new inventions, not long-existing alien tech. But thanks to a system that gives owners exclusive rights to sell their technology, humanity gets a big technological boost.
Vatta’s War by Elizabeth Moon: In the distant future, spaceships communicate with one another via ansible. A single group owns all significant patents on communications technology and consequently functions as a de facto government. Are patents a pro or a con? Con. With a runaway patent system and no antitrust laws, a sole organization is able to hold the universe’s trade groups hostage to its rule.
Next by Michael Crichton: After BioGen, a genetics research company, harvests cells from a cancer survivor, the company patents his cell line. The survivor sues the company, but loses when the court awards ownership of the line to BioGen. Are patents a pro or a con? Con. As with many of the scientific experiments he depicts, Crichton envisions the law as spiraling out of control. BioGen decides that, since it owns the man’s cell line, it can harvest cells from his unwilling descendents, hunting down his daughter and grandson.