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The Pizzo Files

A Few More Thoughts on the Patents Issue by Tim O'Reilly

by Stephen Pizzo
05/24/2000 As a complement to the discussion between Tim O'Reilly and Patents Officer Director Q. Todd Dickinson, we got a chance to collect Tim's thoughts on their conversation afterwards.

Pizzo: Have you heard any movement on his part in this conversation?

Tim: Not really. I think, ultimately the issues that I hear are several: One, there's a lot of history in Washington about this issue. There are a lot of people who have lobbied one way or the other. The patent office basically has a set of marching orders from Congress, and Congress has got its marching orders from the people who really care about the system, so the people who have not historically been involved in the system effectively get disenfranchised. And that's the thing that I guess I came away from my Washington visit more than anything: with that idea that the field belongs to the people who care most about it. The people who care most about it are the people who are looking to use the patent system to profit from it, and, you know, I wish I could get across more to these guys there's a huge corps of inventors who are doing things that are valuable to the future of technology, to the future of this country, who are not devoting their resources to patenting, who are just happy going off inventing, and they're basically having their rights taken away by other people. I think the patent office needs to work a lot harder to protect the rights of those non-patenting inventors.

Pizzo: I've interviewed a lot of government officials over the years, and you get to know which ones are empty suits. This guy is clearly not an empty suit. He knew his subject very well, and, you know, what I heard him saying kind of below the surface and sometimes outright was, "If you want this change, get politically involved." The problem with the constituency that you're representing, Mr. O'Reilly, is they spend too much time in front of computers and not enough time lobbying Washington for their rights and getting involved in the political process, much like the NRA was able to control the gun issue all these years. It's only now that the anti-gun people are starting to move legislation in another direction because they're starting to counter them. I mean, do you -- not that you speak for this whole group of people, but -- do you take some responsibility for that point of view?

Tim: Oh, absolutely. I think it's certainly the case that as technology impacts society, people who are involved in creating technology have got become more involved. You know, there are organizations like EFF and EPIC and conferences like Computers, Freedom and Privacy that deal with the social impact of computing -- Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. But it is still a relatively small segment of the industry that really spends a lot of time on these issues.

Pizzo: But it's a potentially enormously powerful constituency in the sense that these are the people who are creating the code that drives the modern economy. I mean, if this group ever does get organized and decides to go, as it were, on strike, there'd be real trouble.

Tim: Yeah, that's certainly true, but I have to say that I'm not sure that people just -- you know, they tend to become cynical about government instead. And I think it is important for people. Real leadership on the part of our government officials means rising above the voices of the lobbyists, the voices of the interested parties who are trying to get their advantage, and instead are really trying to think about the public good. And I think there are some issues here that I'd like to see some leadership from in Washington, where they would work very affirmatively to solve these problems, to think through the implications of what they're doing.

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