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Friday, January 27, 2006

Open standards, patents and society

Our constant endeavors to create luminary products bring us in contact with others in the space who constantly harp on patents, registered designs and IP accumulation as the key to building value. While we will do what we have to do to grow the company a deeper look at the IP regime and information revolution that make all this necessary is called for.

The structure of a free market economy is fundamentally geared toward demand side. The supply side exists to predict and position functional, economical, socially gratifying products to meet this demand. This implies a surplus economy (enough capital for multiple entities to work at different approaches to the same problem) high purchasing power in the catchment. It also implies the ability to identify or create a need, design, execute ,test and distribute the same choreographed with a marketing blitz and awareness campaign. To me this is sociology at its finest. I sometimes think Kavin Care (of sachet shampoo fame) has better practicing sociologists than the JNU !

In such an economic eco-system abundant and cheap sources of power are a given. So is depth of market and geographical spread. All these factors are more or less natural and could have been found in the Souks, Santhai, Bazaars world over for millennia. The modern twist, a child of the industrial revolution, is the patent or exclusivity right that was created to protect the investments of innovators from the assault of the me-too manufacturers. As mechanized manufacture destroyed the artisan system of manufacture, some other institution had to enter the economy to substitute for the trade secret mechanism provided by the Guild system and to induce capital into the system especially in expensive stuff like open ended domain R&D. The competitive advantage of nations and corporations can be measured in what they are willing to gamble on creating a 'better mouse trap'. As the better mouse trap kills off the current mouse trap (and destroys somebody's business and investment) the system is a race to the bottom unless some protection is granted to the innovator. Hence a patent is a very socialist tool invented to protect innovation from less encumbered capital and in the end social progress in the technological mode.

The key obviously is to protect only true innovation and not create a tool that can be exploited cynically to profit off the innovations of others. This seems to be the current state of affairs due to the complete undermining of the US patent system (and the others as well) by a professional IPR lobby. The recent fiasco with the blackberry demonstrates how the granting of patents for things like software concepts, business models, life forms is retrogade and represents the victory of cowboy capital over the conventional socially bound capital. The GNU movement was all about this. It was indeed prophetic of Richard Stallman to predict this logjam decades earlier. While capital is the engine of civilization, the social context is its foundation. All information cannot be treated as equally patentable and prior art should be well researched before the grant of a patent. The qualitative definition of innovation will continue to dog patents, but ridiculous stuff can easily be culled. Also it is important to have open standards to balance the effect of patents. But for Linux, Microsoft will be much stronger today. We will have more blackberry fiascos.

Fortunately the space that we work in does have a lot of room for patents but mostly in the semiconductor material area (think gallium nitrate level of innovation) and the packaging area. The good part is that the luminary space has enough prior art to keep all but the most sound patents out (though people have tried to patent even heat sinking of LED's in luminaries, which is incidentally a mandatory requirement as per the lamp manufacturers specs :) There will be some genuine innovations in the luminary categorization space as LED's allow new forms of lighting to be conceived by their special characteristics. So while a stable and fair patent regime can genuinely stroke innovation, it is a lot better to have none instead of a flawed system that does the opposite.

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