An Alternative Point of View on Personal Data and Patents

PDEC member Stan Smith offers this guest blog post on patents and Personal Data.  Stan holds a number of patents, and feels this is a genuine method of doing the right thing.  From time to time we’ve noticed that patent-holders raise hackles among those who champion open source, and feel there is a major difference between the two.  Stan’s take is very interesting.  It arose out of discussion on PDEC monthly Conference Calls and interaction with members of the PDEC Governance Committee.  Stan’s passion for his work and his commitment to serving and respecting the individual led to this blog post.  And read it all the way through to learn how Stan’s patents might be of value and benefit to you, as a member of PDEC.

An Alternative Point of View on Personal Data and Patents

Some people maintain they have a right to their personal information and that capturing their information for resale of it to others is tantamount to theft. They can perhaps accept that the entity providing them a service is entitled to a fair exchange for use of a service and that their personal data might be the price or the fee for that exchange; but if the data is sold off to folks they do not know or do not trust for reuse for purposes they are not aware of ahead of time – well that is just WRONG.

Some people maintain that they have a right to their own creative work and that capturing their creative work for resale of it to others is tantamount to theft. Wait a minute – isn’t a patent creative work? Isn’t it too a kind of personal information? Shouldn’t the creator of that patent be entitled to exchange it with any entity; give it away; sell it at an exorbitant price (there will be no takers, but it can be attempted); license it for a time? The government via the patent office and the copyright laws say there is a limit to this. You can only maintain your rights to this kind of personal data/information/property for a limited period of time. Well, maybe that’s reasonable. We can argue about what the right amount of time is. We can also require a person who lays claim to a creative product/data/information to prove that it is theirs, to prove that it is different – that it does not overlap the property of others. That is the patent examination process.

Now we get into the argument about innovation and the right of someone to coopt the innovation/patent for their own use and perhaps even profit from it. Isn’t that what we find so offensive when Google or Facebook or Uber sell off our personal information? It very well may offend us if someone buys/owns a piece of property in our neighborhood and they don’t even put a house on it. They let weeds run rampant. Their property poses a threat to the community. Well, we need to impose community standards on that property. We really can’t just arbitrarily take that property, can we? We really can’t just steal it – even if it would make a perfect spot for a garden or a farm or a factory. We can guilt them. We can tell them they need to offer their property up for the common good. We can incentivize them to improve or use the property by threatening condemnation or fining them for untidiness, but we can’t just take it.

A patent is an interesting kind of property. To get it, you have to expose it. It is not like a business secret – like the formula for Coca Cola. A patent requires the inventor to show everyone how it works and how it is different from the other stuff out there. Anyone can then figure out how to circumvent it, use it to inform themselves about the “art” or creative addition to human knowledge that it includes. Wow! It is in fact a public benefit. Its value – for licensing or for giving the patent owner a window to “farm” it by making his own products or tools using it – is subject to free market forces. Very American; very practical.

But then there are the hypocrites, the people who cry about the theft or cooptation of their personal information/property, but will not respect the property of others. They think patents are bad. For the life of me, I can’t quite get the logic unless it is that they truly endorse a right to trample on and use the property of others. Patent and copyright and other property rights are fair and just. They are social contracts – transparent, mutual, lawful, and require competency and performance.

The complaints about non-practicing entities are spurious – but because of my fear of social isolation I do want you to know I do practice – unfortunately not very well to this point – but I practice hard and regularly. But even a guy who owns a Stradivarius and never plays it is entitled to own it. If we go with the folks in the righteous “politically correct” herd who are irritated by the pioneers and innovators, we’ll go over the cliff or we’ll be corralled by the oligopolies who hate patents that prevent them from growing and expanding further and love patents that keep them in the cat bird seat. This is very political. I hope it is persuasive for you. Stop the hypocrisy. Embrace individual rights, even if these sometimes stand in your way and may prevent you from doing something you weren’t smart enough to figure out first. And if you were smart enough to figure stuff out, you should patent it. Do it as a good deed to share what you have been struggling with with a community of your peers. You can always give away licenses. Consider it a form of intellectual philanthropy if, like me, you are too incompetent at business to convert your IP into money or you want to see your ideas live and thrive.

Oh, and please note that this is copyrighted material; but I hereby entitle you to tell anybody anything in it and to quote it in whole or in part. One last thing, I believe the Founding Fathers had very similar ideas, and I want to give them a nod and a wink and my thanks.

Editor’s note: Stan told us that he is willing to license his patents for use by PDEC members.  Stan said he felt motivated to get the patents and have the processes in good hands, rather than in the hands of monoliths who lack concern for individuals and their personal data.  Stan truly embodies the spirit of PDEC!