Blown To Bits

The Internet Could Not Have Been Invented Today

Sunday, September 7th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

If you want to know why not, read “When Academia Puts Profit Ahead of Wonder,” an opinion piece in today’s New York Times. It’s about the unforeseen consequences of the Bayh-Dole act, which was meant to provide a profit motive to universities, to encourage them to transfer their scientific and technological discoveries to private enterprise as quickly as possible. As a result, the spirit of science and applied science has changed. One of the first thing that happens to students today is that they are informed that the university has rights to inventions and discoveries that come about as part of sponsored research. When I wrote some math software in 1968 that enabled users to write equations in ordinary 2-D notation and to see the graphs of those equations on a screen, I don’t think I had even heard the word “patent.” It was just not part of the vocabulary — certainly not the university’s possible interest.

If the Internet protocols were developed in a university setting today, the university would almost have to patent them and then give a single private company a long-term exclusive license to use them. The Internet would not be common property, and research at other universities would be restricted by the legal requirement that they negotiate use of the patent rights.

It’s a new world, and not a better one. Jennifer Washburn’s book, University, Inc., which is mentioned in the article, is also excellent, even though it’s a few years old now.

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