I applied for a patent this year. While I sincerely believe my invention is patentable under the current definition applied by the US Patent Office, I also believe the US Patent Office’s current definition is bullshit, and is stifling innovation by giving exclusive rights to obvious ideas and creating a culture of fear that hurts start ups more than big companies.
The incremental effect of my patent in reinforcing this bullshit system is very small. Even if you internalized all the negative externalities, I believe the cost is trivial next to the benefits of applying (shiny resume line and a $5,000 bonus). But no single snowflake believes it’s to blame for the avalanche, and I was really not comfortable justifying material gain because everyone else was doing it. My compromise was to donate half the bonus to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which fights for a variety of pro-individual and pro-start-up positions, including patent reform. There’s no way my patent did $2500 worth of damage to society, so everyone comes out ahead except the patent trolls.
One friend asked if I thought patent reform was truly the most important cause in the entire world, and if not, why not donate to the more important one? I have a few explanations, but I must acknowledge I made the decision first and then looked for why I made it. The easy answer is that the world is complicated, and when the developing world catches up with us, I want what they catch up with to be not just materially comfortable, but… well honestly I want some sort of Star Trek utopia where all material needs are sated and people do things for sheer love of learning. But failing that, I at least want a world where individuals can invent things that improve the world. I don’t want us getting stuck at any particular rung on the ladder.
The other reason is that donating to the EFF isn’t supposed to be penance or an indulgence, it’s supposed to undo a specific harm I did. I am deeply uncomfortable with justifying unethical behavior by helping some greater good. For one, humans are bad at math, so it’s easy to see that doing net harm. But even if all the trades are strictly advantageous it complicates the system, which ultimately makes it harder to get my Star Trek utopia. Sometimes that complication is necessary and moral, but if you are in a situation where that is necessary you should probably find someone else to do it. My talents lie in simplifying.