Letters

Readers respond to "Public Money, Private Code" and "A Hardcore Elegy for Ion Storm." Plus: Amory Lovins responds to "Nukes now!"


Salon Staff
January 9, 2002 1:30AM (UTC)

Read "Public Money, Private Code"

Congratulations for the fine article "Public Money, Private Code." There is one point the article does not address that I should like to mention.

Publicly funded research is just that -- publicly funded. That puts taxpayers in the same role as venture capitalists. When universities and federal labs are then allowed to license that intellectual property to corporations, they are reaping the rewards of the risk that the taxpayers took. These licenses are likely to be negotiated at below market rates because the universities and federal labs that license them did not bear the full cost of their development. It's almost free money, as it is something they did not previously expect a return on.

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Do venture capitalists invest in tech start-ups and expect nothing in return? I think not. Why then do the taxpayers have to? If intellectual property with commercial potential is developed with taxpayer money, the taxpayers should realize the benefit. Usually, the beneficiaries of a successful technological innovation are few -- at most several thousand shareholders or V.C.s. When an investment is made on behalf of every taxpayer in the U.S., allowing the rewards of that investment to accrue to a few companies and individuals represents a transfer of wealth by the federal government from the many to the few.

Think of that the next time you see the CEO of Verisign in a fancy sports car because essentially, your tax dollars paid for it.

-- John Akred

Tthe universities miss the main point: Intellectual property developed by publicly funded research should be released for everyone to use -- otherwise, public tax dollars (taken from blue-collar workers) are being used to subsidize the risky areas of new product development for wealthy corporations like Microsoft and the drug companies.

In essence, Bob Dole's law made federal research programs into a form of reverse welfare for plutocrats like Bill Gates (why am I not surprised?). If universities don't want to justify their public support by providing research results to the general public, then the solution is simple: Cut off their public funding.

-- Don Williams

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Jeffrey Benner's excellent article misses an important economic and political issue of whether it is fair to use public, taxpayer-supplied funds to benefit and subsidize a private or semiprivate entity. What is happening is the worst of combining capitalism and socialism -- a firm (or public agency acting as a firm) takes money from taxes but keeps the rewards to itself. This provides an incredible economic advantage over privately funded firms and over time will destroy all entrepreneurial incentive, which has produced our country's success.

If the U.S. wishes to remain a capitalism-based society, the answer is simple: Software code (and other intellectual property) developed with public money should be public (with the only exception being perhaps some national security issues). Code developed with private funds should have the prerogative to stay private no matter how popular or widespread it is.

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-- John T. Taber

Fortunately, you are wrong:

TCP/IP became successful because it was open-sourced. At that time, many competing protocols (both packet-based and connection-based) were competing (AOL, MSN, X-25, etc.), but the one that won was the one that was open.

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Exactly the same is true for the WWW and also for Linux (OpenBSD and FreeBSD are as good, but still too limited in licensing).

History seems to like open-source software, and all the lawyers in the world can't do anything against it.

-- Zoltan Hubert

It would seem apparent that attitudes like Mr. Bill Hoskins' have been building and gaining power for some time now.

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After universities make research their primary purpose and treat education as a consequential pain they must endure in order to maintain funding, the next logical step is profiting from the research.

I do not believe that the goals of men like Bill Hoskins can be stifled or stopped, and they will come to fruition in wide scale at most if not all of our major universities.

While I think there is little we can do to stop this from happening, I do believe we have several avenues of response once it does.

First, I believe if a university is reaping profit from research done with public funding, we have the right to demand that tuition is lowered, or done away with.

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Alternatively, the funding universities receive from the government should be treated as loans, to be paid back from the revenue (gross, not net) they make from selling their projects.

Finally, once the cash monster administrators like Bill Hoskins would create is out of the closet and fully exposed, if the public is not properly compensated, we do have the law on our side and legal action should be taken.

As a side and final note, if any of you out there are university students, before you enroll again, or work on any research project, make sure you do not sign anything, without reading it thoroughly, ensuring you do not sign your intellectual rights to the project over to the university, and if you must do so, do mediocre work.

-- James Simon

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There's one very easy way to end this trend: a general revolt against any Offices of Intellectual Property. By simply taking a disk with the code on it to a public library, these researchers could and should disseminate that data to the best outlet available to them: Usenet.

For those who do not know (and shame on you if you don't), Usenet is a public arena for the posting of articles, photos and programs. In most cases, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) allow -- albeit sometimes limited -- access to this resource. Usenet is huge: An unfiltered collection of these newsgroups can include 40,000 categories or more, which is why Usenet access is often restricted to certain groups.

Nonetheless, the utility and versatility of Usenet could be very, very useful to those researchers who wish to clandestinely disseminate their code -- regardless of the desires of their administrators. True, any university could suspend the project after it became known that the code had been released, but such action would be like the actions the RIAA has taken against file sharing. Once the cat is out of the proverbial bag, thousands upon thousands of programmers would likely scrutinize the released code, and the university in question would have no recourse.

No university can tell a public library to shut off its Internet access because a researcher might use the library to distribute code in spite of their Office of Intellectual Property. It is my hope that some researcher somewhere will read this letter and spark an outright revolt. While this is highly unlikely, it's also a sure thing: access to the Internet from a library is largely anonymous.

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I have a very serious problem with using public money for private research. It's a lot like double-dipping: they get the money from us to pay for the research, then they get the money from us to pay for the product that our money and our money alone allowed to come into being. We, as the public, ought to be infuriated with these actions.

I've outlined a way to stop this in its tracks. It's up to the researchers to take the next step.

-- Kyle Nally

They should have the right to license and sell their developments. As taxpayers we should also have the right to withhold funding to these institutions that use "our" dollars without giving back to the taxpayer. If they want to act like software developers then they should fund themselves with their profits. I wonder how quickly they would change their minds once they found their government funding was drying up. Royalties and selling software revenue is probably much smaller for a university than the grants and funding they get from the government and private sector. I also am in favor of the government using open source for its affairs instead of using private sector technology at taxpayer expense.

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-- Scott Benninghoff

Read "A Hardcore Elegy for Ion Storm"

I would like to point out, as many people probably have before me, that Daikatana did not fail because of a negative media bias against it. It failed for two simple reasons.

The first reason was that the engine was several years old. Who would want to play a game that looked about as good as Half-Life did three or four years ago? Unless it was fun ...

Which brings me to the second reason. Daikatana was not fun. It was repetitive, the partner AI got in the way or got stuck, the enemies were idiotic and the weapons were bland.

The ball of failure might have been set in motion by the gaming press, but this prediction of doom should have been met by Ion Storm with a great game. Instead of delaying the project, they should have either used the Quake 3 engine (no easy task, as it was already a late game), or just dumped it and started a new game.

As President Abe Lincoln once said, "It is better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt."

-- Jonathan Bristow

Wow. Can you find a person to maybe read over a writer's work before you publish it? That was one of the worst written articles I have ever read. And since I am a computer programmer with zero skills at grammar and writing, that means it is really bad. "Everybody was high on life (and from 4:20 breaks)," "company's layout was a hi-tech wet dream", please. I'm not doubting it; the computer field is one of the most relaxed industries. While Christian Divine has the opportunity to provide us with an inside perspective to one of the more notorious software companies, he did nothing with it. All he did was write a piece about another cliché software company. He talks about how people on chat rooms and Web sites were talking about Ion Storm, but he never really compares the outside gossip with insider knowledge. But then he probably didn't have any real insider knowledge anyway...

-- Scott

Nice to see an insider's view, however slanted.

I love how he says that Daikatana was predictably "slammed" and Deus Ex "Praised." There was a reason for this.

Diakatana sucked. Half the level designs were like a third grader's art project. Daikatana was the worst game ever put out. Sadly, other game industry insiders agree.

Deus Ex was a good game. I don't think it was great, but Warren Spector has a great idea with that one. Part FPS, part RPG, part adventure game, it was a good effort.

I do share the feelings of the writer, but not about Ion Storm. Kesmai was another studio filled with people who lived and breathed games. Well, it was until Electronic Arts gutted it in a buyout.

Hopefully the independent studios will flourish again soon.

-- Chris Mann

Read "Nukes Now!"

Damien Cave's Dec. 10 ode to reviving nuclear power is decades too late: Aside from its many other problems, its economics are dreadful, so the private market won't finance it. The reasons are summarized (in order of increasing detail) here, here, and here.

Mr. Cave makes the common error (featured in industry propaganda) of comparing nuclear plants' relatively low running costs with alternatives' total construction plus running costs. Comparing just the latter, apples-to-apples, however, shows new nuclear plants are several-fold too costly to compete with at least three very large and widely available resources: efficient use of electricity, gas-fired cogeneration in buildings or industry and wind farms.

His proposed reasons for a nuclear revival are equally specious: California's electricity crisis (the state didn't have soaring demand, built more distributed generation in the '90s than it has nuclear capacity and wasn't short of generating capacity: see here); Persian Gulf oil (only 2-3 percent of U.S. electricity is made from oil, and only 2 percent of oil is used to make electricity); and climate change (which nuclear power worsens by diverting investment from cheaper solutions that buy more carbon savings per dollar).

In short, Mr. Cave appears to have fallen victim to a well-organized propaganda campaign. Fortunately, Wall Street hasn't, so the nuclear revival won't happen. In fact, the New Scientist (U.K.) is just publishing a leaked British government study finding that nuclear power is an economic turkey and should be phased out.

-- Amory B. Lovins, CEO (Research) Rocky Mountain Institute


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