Really common question:
"Does the patent system do more harm than good?"
Just about everything I read assumes that the answer is: "No - most patent systems are a net good for societies, but we can do better."
After all, patents are just antiproperty with a 20 year incubation period as a government-granted intellectual property franchise. In other words, patent systems carry a lot of baggage.
Assuming that the common wisdom is true - the next question is:
"What's better?" Or more specifically: "Are there systems that can be developed alongside the patent system that can provide us with additional IF?"
I was recently alerted to a paper by Tom Bell discussing one such potential parallel system - scientific predictive exchanges. (spex) I like the idea, and I can see how predictive markets could not only encourage research, but, were the claims to be "bet" upon collaboratively developed, they would potentially expand IF.
SPEX aren't all that different from your company's internal office pool on "what product Google will announce next?" or "when will the release date of your own next product will finally arrive?". These predictive games may not change the world, but good ideas and good data can come out of them (and you might make a few bucks, too!).
A little extra investment in the implementation of a SPEX, however, might make all the difference in its utility. As I alluded to previously, if someone can come up with a good predictive scientific exchange that encouraged collaborative development of scientific claims, then well defined, high-quality ideas might develop that did not previously exist. Exactly what the patent system is supposed to do, without the abuses and high transaction costs.
To restate the last question in light of this new system, assuming SPEX ideas are cheaper to society than patented ideas (and we have no reason to believe otherwise):
"Can a SPEX be designed to encourage the generation of useful ideas, especially those that would qualify as prior art?"
A SPEX that answers that question in the affirmative might not be designed so much as a "market" as a collaborative tool. This train of thought brings me a conclusion I come to often: Keep working on on-line collaborative tools. They hold rare potential as technological solutions to social-political problems.
Anyone up for a predictive market plug-in to MeidaWiki?
UPDATE: HFS, Batman! An idea incubator website thingy! This is almost totally unrelated to anything else I've discussed here, but so cool that I can't help myself from linking to it.
Actually, Cambrian house is just a web apps company that encourages anyone to post ideas for them to develop, and anyone to help develop them. If they are successful, well...I would like to say that they will encourage the documentation of a lot of useful, high quality antiproperty. The initial stage ideas are very thinly described, however, and Cambrian house is not capable of implementing more than a few of them. The thing is, given two generally useful ideas, the very well documented idea will be very useful. Most patent systems do a reasonable job of encouraging good documentation.
On the other hand, Cambrian house does publish specs as they work, so that others can contribute labor for royalty points. Cambrian house is just starting out, and they are highly involved in the voting process, so maybe they can encourage something closer to patent quality work.
I love this idea.