Russel Winder's Website

Silicon Valley no longer the source of innovation?

People, including lawyers, have now had time to research and reflect on the US Supreme Court opinion "In Re Bilski". Having perused some of the analysis, it is interesting that there might be the beginnings of a fundamental shift in attitudes towards software patents -- well by the analysts and pundits, definitely not by the big companies and lawyers.

One really interesting piece is this one. It is good to see the argument that patents are tools for big, monied organizations being increasingly recognized. Also that startups are the point of innovation, not big organizations. Big organizations is where engineering happens: new products are harnessed, made smaller, faster, more efficient. Startups don't do this (at least not generally), they create the first implementations of new ideas. Some innovation are generated in big organizations but nothing like the amount that happens via startups.

Ironically (perhaps), the big US software companies often imply that software patents are somehow the "American Way" and they have the right to be able to destroy or buy out any potential competitor because that is how capitalism works and capitalism is the "American Way". Of course another part of the "American Way" is opportunity for all: every startup should be allowed to try its hand without the fear of being hounded out of play - especially if that is by means of financial muscle. There seems to be two diametrically opposed "American Way"s here.

Big software organizations have as reported in many places been on a campaign to try and convince the EU to adopt the US patent approach. But if patents are a tool for big organizations to preserve their status, often near monopolies, how can the EU justify creating a patent system that stifles innovation, destroys competition, and promotes monopolies? Surely the EU should see through the gambit and cease all moves to allow any form of software patent. Of course it may be that "big money" is getting as powerful in the lobbies of the EU as it is in the lobbies in Washington. If the "big money" was European it would be more understandable, but it is all US.

Let us assume the US patent system stays in the US, and the rest of us have a more sane system. Then it is clear that software innovation cannot happen within US jurisdiction. Innovation is about having an idea and getting on with realizing it. Having to spend all your time trawling patent databases to see if a technique you have used violates a patent, is a 100% killer of enthusiasm and thus innovation. So I agree with Sawyer, it seems like the right move to have all software innovation happen outside the borders of the USA. This means the role of Silicon Valley is due for reassessment. Of course the USA has (arguably) the best infrastructure for supporting startups (and hence innovation) whilst at the same time has the biggest tool for supporting monopolies and the killing of innovation (its patent system).

I guess the interesting question is what happens about importing into the USA innovative software developed outside the USA which violates some US patent. Import will be banned, and the USA will fall further and further behind in the technology race. China is already the centre of manufacturing, is it also destined to become the centre of all innovative software development? I suspect not given the governments view on freedom of information, speech, etc. This is an ideal opportunity for Europe, indeed the UK, to become a serious power in software innovation. Perhaps the UK government should itself innovate and provide the legal and financial infrastructures to support innovation and startups far, far better than the UK does at the moment.

Of course "Silicon Fen" and "Silicon Corridor" are the stomping grounds (literally in terms of stopping startups) of the big money organizations, so it is unlikely that they could be the replacements for "Silicon Valley". Where can be though, and what trendy name can we give it?

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