I had a chance this afternoon to see one of my favorite writers and thinks, George Gilder.  He came to Microsoft to speak.  Anyway, he said something very interesting.  He stated than patents are not all that valuable because they are open.  Usually having the idea is not worth much until someone can reduce it to practice.  An example he used was that of the microprocessor.  This was something many people had the idea of doing.  It wasn't terribly useful to have that idea until someone figured out to actually manufacture such a beast.  Once that happened, the idea became valuable.  This knowledge about how to do something is what he calls a "latent."  This is an interesting idea and it has, I think, two implications:

  1. Companies which are obsessed by patents may be going down the wrong path.  The next Microsoft or Intel won't come from having the right patents but rather having the right latents.
  2. The USPTO should look very critically at "idea" patents.  If something is an actual mechanism of creating something (a latent which is being made open), a patent may be warranted.  If, on the other hand, this is an idea before its time, it should be rejected.  The only purpose the latter can have is to stop someone who has an idea about *how* to do it from doing it.  Imagine someone patenting the idea of the microprocessor.  It would have made it impossible for companies like Intel to have done what they did.

George Gilder works at the Discovery Institute.  His newest book is called the Silicon Eye.