Friday, November 16, 2007

Should IP issues affect our research?

Since I've done some legal consulting, I've become interested in intellectual property (IP) issues, and the question of whether IP issues should affect my research agenda has recently occurred to me.

Let me explain. As an algorithmist, a major interest for me is designing algorithms that people will actually use -- perhaps not in the original form that I describe them in, of course, but that the ideas make it out into the real world. And while it is not my aim that every project I'm involved in should have a clear potential practical impact, it is the case that this goal guides my overall research agenda quite significantly.

IP issues have the potential to limit the practical impact of an algorithm I design. For example, suppose someone has a patent on SuperHashSchemeX (SHSX). (If you want something more specific, suppose Bloom filters were patented.) I might come up to an improvement to SHSX, or a better analysis of SHSX, but if the patent is written well, the patent owner may have rights controlling who could use SHSX, including my improvement. There may really be no hope that anyone else will actually be able to make use of my ideas, until the patent runs out, or unless the user is willing to buy a license. Indeed, unless I go through the process of obtaining a patent, it's possible that my work might simply add value for the initial patent-holder, and I've actually rewarded those who are keeping my work from being used.

Perhaps this wouldn't bother me if my theory blood ran pure, but I like being an "applied theorist". In my mind, this affects the calculus I use in thinking about what I should work on.

Should it? Has anyone actually run into this problem?

3 comments:

Daniel Lemire said...

I worked in industry for a few years and some areas are blanket-patented, like digital signal processing, especially compression routines. The most obvious example is arithmetic coding which is probably still under some patent or another.

However, this tends to impact you more as you go up the food chain. If you do low-level work and are a very specialized expert, you can probably navigate around patents though they may slow you down.

In theory, patents can't cover an idea, they can only cover the implementation of an idea. So, you can patent, I suppose, MergeSort, but you can't patent the idea of using merge on sorted arrays to sort an array.

So, while I am no expert, I think this buys you some room if you really understand the ideas behind the potentially patented technique. That is, you can replace the patented scheme with an equivalent one, not under a patent.

It is a bit difficult to do when, say, designing engines. The idea behind an engine is simple, it is the implementation that's difficult.

I guess, if you design algorithms, typically, coming up with the idea is the hard part. Actually putting the idea in practice (through pseudocode) should be easier. Maybe.

Daniel Lemire said...

(I should add the disclaimer that I never had any serious legal issue, so this is only my potentially naïve opinion.)

Jon Katz said...

I've seen things happen more often the other way around (in crypto research): someone comes up with a scheme which has no theoretical or efficiency advantage as compared to existing schemes other than the fact that it is different enough to not fall under existing patents.