Can PatentLeft Save Us?

News Analysis

Article from Issue 204/2017

A hack on patent law, based on copyleft, could render patents useless.


Can PatentLeft Save Us?

The word "copyleft" arises from a clever hack by Richard Stallman, who used the laws relating to copyright – a statutory device to incent creativity by granting limited monopolies to creators – to create a world where creators are incented to share instead of monopolize their work.

Since the Berne Convention, a creative work is the automatic sole property of its creator, and the only way others can use it in any way until the monopoly expires is with the express permission of the creator of the work, who is said to hold the copyright. Copyleft grants everyone receiving the work an unlimited license to use, improve, and share it, but only on the condition they grant the same conditional rights to every recipient. Copyleft thus makes more and more works freely usable as more and more people improve them.

Could we do the same thing to subvert patent law? It seems that's at least part of the motivation behind the use of a controversial combination of the BSD open source copyright license and a broad patent grant by Facebook. A few years ago, they silently standardized on releasing all their open source projects – including popular codebases like the RocksDB storage engine and the React.js user interface framework – under the venerable three-clause BSD license supplemented by a unilateral grant to any of Facebook's patents necessary to use the software.


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