Of Patent Rats and Blaming Teachers

1/10/12

[Editor's Note: We asked selected Xconomists a series of questions designed to zero in on the big issues of the year, including "What issues would you be willing to throw a punch over?"]

There are two.

The first is the state of the patent system, particularly as it affects computing hardware and software (broadly construed). Just about everything about the system is broken. In my view it is working strongly against real innovation. Major companies amass enormous portfolios of questionable patents that they can use to bludgeon one another (until they sign cross-licensing agreements, at which point only the little guys are left to be bludgeoned). Organizations that are not in the innovation business acquire portfolios that they assert for profit alone. I have absolutely nothing against the licensing of substantive innovations by those in the innovation business, whether by major companies or little guys . But much of what goes on today does not fall into this category, and something needs to change. I am not sufficiently expert to make appropriate detailed proposals, but I am sufficiently expert to smell a rat.

The second is our “blame the teachers and the teachers unions” approach to improving K-12 education. Yes, K-12 education is a mess, more of a mess in the U.S. than in most industrialized nations, and more of a mess in Washington than in almost all other technology states. (For some facts to support the latter assertion, see this.)

But blaming teachers and unions is a cheap way to avoid confronting the many real problems that plague our K-12 education system and are leading us rapidly down the road to an ever-more-stratified society of haves and have-nots, threatening the raw material upon which the innovation economy depends. Here, too, I don’t have an easy or quick solution—there isn’t one. But we are not going to make progress by sitting around playing the blame game.

Ed Lazowska holds the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington. His research and teaching concern the design, implementation, and analysis of high performance computing and communication systems. Follow @

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