Thursday, August 25, 2011

Your Silly Little Idea

Having lived in Silicon Valley for over a dozen years now, I've been the guest at an absurd little ego-drama on countless occasions.

The way it goes is that a friend has you over for dinner and can't wait to tell you about their new venture (partnership/tech startup/innovation) so they ask you if you'll sign a non-disclosure agreement to protect their new company. (The company by the way, usually has no DBA, no EID, no employees or money -- in fact it exists mostly as a chain of emails between friends and a few scribbled notes from a meeting at Barefoot Coffee Roasters. Oh yeah! And of course there IS that folder filled with DBAs signed by friends and family.)

Once the prophylactic paperwork is in order, you are served single malt scotch and appetizers as you are regaled with the details of the new venture. It turns out -- are you kidding me...

It turns out that the new idea is to launch a service that scans all Facebook posts over time and produces a graph of your acquaintances based on the ratio of vowels to consonants they typically use in posts. You see, the difference between "vowel" people and "consonant" people is a big deal. (I mean Consonant People are from Pluto and Vowel People are from Uranus.)

My point here is that in an innovation obsessed culture like that of Silicon Valley, ideas are abundant and there seems to be a compulsive urge to try to imagine something that no one else can yet see. (And who knows, the Vowel/Consonant Social Graph may yet turn out to be a big deal.)

But the real truth is that if an idea is wholesome, there really ARE several people thinking about it at the same time, maybe each one devising a totally different response to the problem or need. Each of them, if left to their own devices, might possibly form separate and even non-competing companies that produce great products.

The point is that the idea has very little intrinsic value. It is the development of the idea, the successful engineering that puts the idea into action, and the effective introduction of the idea into the marketplace -- THAT is what we get paid for.

So when Ken Norton (the software engineer, not the boxing guy) published an article advocating the end of software patents, I could see the logic immediately. Let me lay out the indelibly compelling points.

  • Software companies spend significant amounts of money and staff resources filing patents, defending patents, and defending against the perceived transgression of patent rights belonging to another.

  • Many software patents are filed as pre-emptive defensive measures, primarily to stave off the worry of being sued by another company.

  • Many software patents are rendered worthless because the application process can sometimes take longer than the useful life of the innovative idea.

  • Some companies exist primarily by purchasing companies to get the software patents, and then suing large companies who will settle rather than go to the expense of a lengthy IP rights defense.

So it's an easy case to make with me. The first point would be enough. If technology companies could reclaim the billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of staff hours spent on this -- what sort of innovations would we see?

For those who think it's important for the United States to lead in technology and innovation, what would be the impact of having innovators move their work into a cultural and legal environment that does not carry this burdensome overhead?

For me, it doesn't matter. I can learn to speak Chinese. I actually like courtrooms (blame the endless stream of Perry Mason episodes that syndicated themselves into the fabric of my childhood), and I get to use the technology no matter where it evolves thanks to a global economy.

But I do have a lot of friends who work for Silicon Valley technology firms (and many who dream of founding one), and I really hope for them to do well.

So maybe it's time to fix this!