Friday, 21 October 2011

Give us the money

There's a view that financial resources are a necessary pre-requisite for creativity and innovation. Some say that commercial firms won't produce anything of value unless they can find a way to monetise it.

One curious exception to this idea is the development of the internet. 'Necessity is the mother of invention' seems to have been a driving force in opening up communication between people via computer in a variety of settings. Academics and research scientists at CERN contributed to a mixture of piecemeal developments that eventually led to what we use (and take for granted today):

Tim Berners-Lee was one of the pioneers at CERN and often credited as one of the fathers of the world wide web. He has recently spoken at UK Parliamentary sub committees discussing the idea of a 2 speed internet, charging people a premium for faster data transfer. He argues passionately that web innovation developed (and continues) through a culture of cooperation, free exchange of ideas and collaboration. He describes it as a Worldwide Open Data Movement:

The European Court of Justice has recently banned the issuing of patents for embryonic stem cell research. Research companies protested that this would set back the timetable for research into cures for a range of chronic and life threatening illnesses. News reports warned that scientists and their research could migrate to other territories, where there were no legal barriers to the work. They hinted that profits from drugs would benefit other economies than our own.

On the one hand there is growing criticism of the ways in which drug companies have profited from harvesting tissue samples, stem cells and genetic code for their work, without rewarding individuals who contributted to them. Henrietta Lacks is a famous example of someone who benefitted mankind through her tissue samples, but did not gain any reward for her family.

Lawyers have already quietly shifted their strategy to patenting the drug therapies rather than the stem cells, so the argument seems to be specious.

Dennis Ritchie is another innovator who gives the lie to the 'money first' premise of creativity and innovation.

Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson worked for Bell Labs (at AT & T) and were designing a complex muti-user operating system called Multics. Bell Labs stopped the project, but Ritchie and Thompson decided to continue building the operating system themselves and came up with Unics (which became Unix). As a telephone monopoly, AT & T were not legally able to sell computer products.

'So the researchers in Bell Labs did what geeks do – they gave it away to their peers in university research labs, under a licence that permitted the recipients to modify and improve it. In doing this Ritchie and Thompson unwittingly launched the academic discipline of computer science, because university departments were suddenly able to give their students software that was not only powerful (and malleable) but also free. The result was that virtually every computer science student in the world became a Unix geek in the course of his or her education.'

Graduates took their Unix experience with them to industry and continued to modify and improve it in commercial applications.

This was the catalyst for several developments. Richard Stallman founded the free software movement (GNU), following Bob Wallace's Shareware. Linus Torvalds modified Unix and released it as Linux.

C++ and Java were built on the C language that Dennis Ritchie devised. Steve Jobs used Unix as the basis for his NeXT computer workstation. He took this experience back to Apple. OS X is built on Unix and and powers all Apple products.

Money does come for good work, but not necessarily for the original patented design. It seems that holding on tight to an idea only seems to squash it, rather than sharing and helping it grow.

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