What If VisiCalc Had Been Patented?

from the innovation dept

Dan Bricklin, the creator of the first spreadsheet program, VisiCalc, has been mentioned in a number of articles recently concerning the issue of software patents, and he's now speaking up about the basic question of what would have happened if he'd been able to patent VisiCalc. He's responding to someone who suggests that the lack of a patent on VisiCalc slowed innovation by making everyone just copy VisiCalc. Bricklin responds smartly (of course) by pointing out that this wasn't true at all. First, plenty of others tried to come up with other, completely different systems to replace spreadsheets -- and none caught on. At the same time, Lotus and Microsoft took what Bricklin (and others) did early on and made them even better and more useful for the market. It all goes back to the same thing we've spoken about in the past. There's a big difference between invention and innovation -- and it's the innovation that helps the economy. However, patents protect invention, not innovation. While a lack of patents may have kept some money out of Bricklin's pockets, it did allow for more focused work on making the spreadsheet better for the market -- and in the end that helped the economy much more, by letting competition and the market drive innovation, rather than a government granted monopoly.

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  1. identicon
    Michael Clouser, 13 Aug 2005 @ 7:26am


    Good find, Mike.

    Innovation is a process within the context of the marketplace. Indeed so much more than simply inventions, true innovation is a continuous interplay between the intellect, the product (or service), and the marketplace.

    If we think about it, the current patent system could actually be one of economic disincentive.

    -It demotivates other creatives from improving on an existing invention, either through product development or marketplace adaptation.

    -The expense of the patent process, in terms of time and money, is especially burdensome to entrepreneurs in the early stage.

    -Other expenses such as patent defense line the wallets of lawyers and waste valuable time and money of innovative firms.

    -Universities spend their sparse resources on protecting IP, and then more resources marketing it. Entrepreneurs and established innovative firms on the outside often "pass" licensing such inventions since the economics of the deal seem lopsided and favor the university. IP sits on the shelves of universities, and is hidden away for all intensive purposes. TTOs fight with faculty and students over IP rights. Many potential startups that would transfer technology and innovation dry heave at this point and die for the potential founders (academic entrepreneurs or surrogate entrepreneurs) are unwilling to move forward with the economics of the deal that seem tilted towards the university.

    Complicated issue, but a lot of fun to discuss.

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