Here’s a great New Yorker article by James Surowiecki on the the often-crazy patent-happy tendencies of modern “new economy” companies.
Americans have traditionally been chary about intellectual-property rights. Thomas Jefferson, who served on the nation’s first patent board, wrote, “If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea.” Although we have always had a vibrant patent system, we’ve managed to strike a balance between the need to encourage innovation and the need to foster competition. As Benjamin Day, Henry Ford, and Sam Walton might attest, American corporations have thrived on innovative ideas and new business methods, without owning them, for two centuries. In the past decade, the balance has been upset. The scope of patents has been expanded, copyrights have been extended, trademarks have been subjected to bizarre interpretations. Celebrities are even claiming exclusive ownership of their first names (consider Spike Lee’s objection to Viacom’s cable channel Spike TV). The new regime’s defenders insist that in today’s economy such vigilance is necessary: ideas are the source of our competitive strength. Fair enough. But you don’t compete by outlawing your competition.