Dragon's Den and their obsession with patents

The latest series of Dragon's Den has just come to an end. Amazingly, it was the sixth series of the programme, and aside from a few changes in the dragon lineup, it hasn't changed at all. The whole thing is produced to a perfect formula, where the pacing, the setting, and even the camera angles and movements (including a weird zoom and pan sequences on Evan Davies' head) are identical episode to episode.

Another aspect of the show that's pretty consistent is the dragons' obsession with patent protections. One of the quickest ways for the contestants to lose the interests of the dragons is to admit that they either have no patent in their invention, or that it's un-patentable. In these situations, the dragons always wheel out a well-worn line that 'bigger companies will be able to replicate your product in an instant, at a cheaper cost'.

It seems that IP, or 'intellectual property', is now considered more important than ever. The British Library even has a Business & IP Centre, providing information and advice to entrepreneurs.

Yet in the open-source software community, there's a growing ideology that patents (and perhaps even copyright) are a bad idea. Perhaps it'd be better for the world if ideas, inventions and designs could be freely copied, with businesses competing around the quality of their manufacture or product. Competing on 'services' rather than protected ideas. The Open Rights Group and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are together campaigning against an extension to copyright terms, and organisations like GNU and FFII are campaigning against software patents full stop, both in America and in Europe, where the issue is currently being debated by politicians and the EU.

So who's right, the dragons or the 'freedom' campaigners? Funnily enough, both sides can see themselves as pro-business. The dragons presumably think they can make more money from their investments in new inventions if those inventions are given a market monopoly through the successful application for a patent. The freedom campaigners believe that an open platform leads to better competition, more innovation (by being able to combine and improve exisiting ideas), and ultimately a bigger market with bigger revenues.

I'm quite interested in what people intuitively feel is the right answer - a kind of folk understanding of 'fairness' (see folk psychology and naïve physics). I'm guessing that people would feel that it's wrong to just copy someone's brilliant idea, and then make tons of money from it whilst the original inventor goes penniless. But also that it's wrong for the world not to be able to benefit from a revolutionary idea just because the person that invented it wants to charge a really high price which no one can do anything about. I understand from history that usage of the steam engine would have spread much earlier were it not for the fierce protection of numerous patents.

The area in which this argument is most emotionally fought is probably medicine, where life-saving drugs can end up being initially hugely expensive, with the costs coming right down (and lives saved going up) when 'generic' versions are able to be produced (think of the cheapo unbranded packets of aspirin you can now buy).

I probably side most with the 'freedom' side of the argument, although I probably would be a bit pissed off in the unlikely event that someone makes millions from one of my ideas (although idea aren't that patentable anyway).

So maybe the dragons should stop worrying about whether inventions are 'protected' or not, and should just get on with investing in businesses and helping them to be as competitive as possible?