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Are Software Patents Evil?
(This essay is derived from a talk at Google.)
A few weeks ago I found to my surprise that I'd been granted four patents. This was all the more surprising because I'd only applied for three. The patents aren't mine, of course. They were assigned to Viaweb, and became Yahoo's when they bought us. But the news set me thinking about the question of software patents generally.
Since the 1970s, economic inequality in the US has increased dramatically. And in particular, the rich have gotten a lot richer. Nearly everyone who writes about it says that economic inequality should be decreased.
I'm interested in this topic because I was one of the founders of a company called Y Combinator that helps people start startups. Almost by definition, if a startup succeeds its founders become rich. Which means by helping startup founders I've been helping to increase economic inequality. If economic inequality should be decreased, I shouldn't be helping founders. No one should be.
People who worry about the increasing gap between rich and poor generally look back on the mid twentieth century as a golden age. In those days we had a large number of high-paying union manufacturing jobs that boosted the median income. I wouldn't quite call the high-paying union job a myth, but I think people who dwell on it are reading too much into it.
Startups happen in clusters. There are a lot of them in Silicon Valley and Boston, and few in Chicago or Miami. A country that wants startups will probably also have to reproduce whatever makes these clusters form.
American technology companies want the government to make immigration easier because they say they can't find enough programmers in the US. Anti-immigration people say that instead of letting foreigners take these jobs, we should train more Americans to be programmers. Who's right?