Hoist the red flag, comrades!

Well, I was going to put up a software review in the blog this morning, but that will have to wait for another day. As I was drinking my morning coffee and browsing the usual spots on the Web I ran across the most recent interview that Bill Gates gave to the folks over at CNET News.com, and the coffee darned near came out on my keyboard. Only the memory of how much I paid for this particular nice keyboard kept my teeth clamped. Most of the interview was the usual PR for Microsoft products, with the usual questionable marketing-speak and some speculations about future technology. But then the interviewer asked Gates to comment on people who want "to reform and restrict intellectual-property rights" and asked whether he thought "intellectual-property laws need to be reformed?" Here's part of his response:

No, I'd say that of the world's economies, there's more that believe in intellectual property today than ever. There are fewer communists in the world today than there were. There are some new modern-day sort of communists who want to get rid of the incentive for musicians and moviemakers and software makers under various guises. They don't think that those incentives should exist. And this debate will always be there. I'd be the first to say that the patent system can always be tuned--including the U.S. patent system. There are some goals to cap some reform elements. But the idea that the United States has led in creating companies, creating jobs, because we've had the best intellectual-property system--there's no doubt about that in my mind, and when people say they want to be the most competitive economy, they've got to have the incentive system. Intellectual property is the incentive system for the products of the future.

Well, imagine that! Bill Gates calling me a communist because I'm in favor of intellectual property reform. (Note how he shifts from people who want to reform the IP system to those who want to abolish it in his response). And here I thought I was being pretty reasonable when I wrote about things like the insanity of allowing a patent for multiple scripts in one XML file or the dubious legalese that underlies the trumpeted openness of the Office XML Reference Schemas. But no, apparently daring to be in favor of reforming intellectual property laws makes me a communist. To be fair, I do think software patents should be abolished - but just to go on record about this, I'm not currently in favor of abolishing private property in general.

And silly me, I'd really thought that somewhere in the last few decades we'd progressed to the point where "communists" was no longer a synonym for "bogeymen", the people who hide under the bed with the express intention of destroying the American way of life by contaminating our precious bodily fluids.

I also seriously question Gates' assertion that strong intellectual property laws are behind the historical growth of the American economy in general or computers in particular. First, it's important to recognize that the things that reformers see as abuses (such as the ever-lenghtening time of copyright protection or the ever-wider net of patentable ideas) are relatively recent developments. The patent, trademark, and copyright system of today bears relatively little resemblance to that which helped out with the McCormick reaper or the Bell telephone (itself a dubious example, since there's pretty good evidence that the Bell companies gamed the patent system from the very start to get a larger monopoly than they were legally entitled to). Second, if you look back to the rise of digital computing in the 1940s and 1950s, it wasn't driven by private companies looking for intellectual property; it was driven by a government that wanted to win one war and prepare for the next. An awful lot of intellectual property came into the public domain from universities and organizations such as the National Bureau of Standards - property on which much of Microsoft's business is built.

I'd like to think that Gates' use of "communists" as the way to slur all intellectual property reformers was just a slip of the tongue, perhaps caused by his interview handlers not preparing him sufficiently for that question. But the fact that he uses the word twice and deliberately twists the question in his response doesn't give me a lot of hope. Perhaps Microsoft will do the right thing and issue a retraction and an apology for this unfortunate ad hominem attack. Either way, I can't say that I'll lose a lot of sleep over what multi-billionaries think of me for opposing the excesses of our current legal system.

About the Author

Mike Gunderloy has been developing software for a quarter-century now, and writing about it for nearly as long. He walked away from a .NET development career in 2006 and has been a happy Rails user ever since. Mike blogs at A Fresh Cup.

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