The Academic Challenge: Ideas, Patents, Openness and Knowledge « Paul Boddie’s Free Software-related blog
"I recently had reason to respond to an article posted by the head of my former employer, the Rector of the University of Oslo, about an initiative to persuade students to come up with ideas for commercialisation to solve the urban challenges of the city of Oslo. In the article, the Rector brought up an 'inspiring example' of such academic commercialisation: a company selling a security solution to the finance industry, possibly based on 'an idea' originating in a student project and patented as part of the subsequent commercialisation strategy leading to the founding of that company. My response made the following points:  Patents stand counter to the academic principle of the dissemination of unencumbered knowledge, where people may come and learn, then make use of their new knowledge, skills and expertise. Universities are there to teach people and to undertake research without restricting how people in their own organisations and in other organisations may use knowledge and thus perform those activities themselves. Patents also act against the independent discovery and use of knowledge in a startlingly unethical fashion: people can be prevented from taking advantage of their own discoveries by completely unknown and inscrutable 'rights holders'.  Where patents get baked into attempts at commercialisation, not only does the existence of such patents have a 'chilling effect' on others working in a particular field, but even with such patents starting life in the custody of the most responsible and benign custodians, financial adversity or other circumstances could lead to those patents being used aggressively to stifle competition and to intimidate others working in the same field.  It is all very well claiming to support Open Access (particularly when snobbery persists about which journals one publishes in, and when a single paper in a 'big name' journal will change people’s attitudes to the very same work whose aspects were already exposed without such recognition in other less well-known publications), but encouraging people to patent research at the same time is like giving with one hand while taking with the other.  Research, development and 'innovation' happens more efficiently when people don’t have to negotiate to be able to access and make use of knowledge. For those of us in the Free Software community who have seen how real progress can be made when resources – in our case, software – are freely usable by others through explicit and generous licensing, this is not news. But for others, this is a complete change of perspective that requires them to question their assumptions about the way society currently rewards the production of new work and to question the optimality of the system that grants such rewards ... On the one hand, I am grateful for the Rector’s response, but I feel somewhat disappointed with its substance ..."