Sat, 31 Dec 2005

A license to steal

Knights

Back in the Y1K, a knight was invincible. A knight mounted on horseback could not be defeated by the peasantry. A suit of armor was very expensive, but it afforded the wearer the ability to do what he wanted, when he wanted. A knight could go into a village and demand tribute, and the villagers could do nothing. It was, in essence, a license to steal.

Technology created the knight, and technology ruined the knight. The steel and iron armor of the day could deflect sword and lance blows. That lasted until the invention of the Welsh longbow, and later handheld firearms. Anybody could become a knight, however a knight's steed and armor were very expensive.

Politics couldn't bring much violence to bear on knights. Only another knight could defeat a knight. The church did its best to keep knights from being the horseback equivalent of the motorcycle gang by its chivalric code.

Patents

The US patent system has become amenable to a protection racket. First, you start a patent holding company. Then you get a patent. It should be something broadly written so that everything plausibly infringes it. Then you go to a small company and say "You infringe this patent. We will sue you, or you can settle for $1000." Obviously the small company settles; it would be insane to do anything else. You keep going to more and more companies, increasing the settlement offer; but always keeping it below their cost of winning a lawsuit.

How does a patent racket differ from a protection racket? The threat differs. In a protection racket, the criminal offers harm to the victim while taking on a risk that they will get caught inflicting that harm. In a patent racket, the criminal offers harm to the victim and themselves at the same time (the cost of bringing and defending a lawsuit). The government typically opposes protection rackets (modulo bribing of police) but tolerates patent rackets.

One of these days some Attorney General planning to run for Governor will wise up to this scam, and go after these firms for criminal extortion. A patent system which allows this kind of activity is clearly unconstitutional since it doesn't "promote the progress of science and useful arts".

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