nikolai.fyi Nikolai Mushegian's Info and Posts

CMU Donation

Yesterday (2019-12-31) I donated 3,200 MKR to Cargnegie Mellon University. I’ve also informally committed another 6,800 for a total of 10,000 MKR to be donated over the next 1-3 years.

The purpose of this donation is to establish a research program for decentralized applications/protocols and game-theoretic mechanisms. Over the next few weeks we will set the research agenda and publish a concrete plan of action.

The main use of funds will be sponsoring Master’s and Ph.D students working on a few key areas of research. CMU is home to world-class experts in several areas that will be critical in the coming years, particularly algorithm design (hint: scaling) and game theory.

I have two motives for this donation. The first is simply that it’s good karma. The second is that I am very concerned about the increasing rent-seeking behavior from some of the big players in this space, and also from existing banks and tech giants.

Over the last 5 years, research in the web3 space has been done by players who automatically put their work into the public domain without a second thought. Part of the reason is that it was fairly easy to monetize marginal improvements in the wild west of the early crypto ecosystem, so there was not a real need to rely on IP law. Nobody wanted to deal with lawyers, everyone wanted to build stuff. The other main reason is that in the network-effect land-grab, permissive licenses were critical to entice developers to your platform. There was no threat from the established networks of banks and tech giants because they did not take us seriously.

It is clear that era has passed. Some of the patents being filed make a mockery of IP law and are an insult to the developers that built the underlying technologies that enable them. Get ready for a years-long multimillion-dollar battle over whether “send crypto over email” is patentable. This example is laugh-out-loud hilarious, but I am afraid in the near future we will find IP judgements that are not so funny.

I see a few key areas where it is obvious that we can make major improvements, but without resources dedicated to fighting off rent-seekers, we risk this industry becoming monopolized by people who are better at filing patents than writing working code.

There’s a reason the developers of Maker published it under GPL, and that I insisted on GPL when jumpstarting Balancer and few others you’ll learn about soon. GPL not only forces improvements back into the public domain, it also means iterations on those concepts can’t be patented. (That is not totally accurate, there is some nuance here which a lawyer can explain to you, but in short GPL is the most aggressively copyleft license that is commonly used, and strongly disincetivizes companies from patenting systems based on modified GPL code).

If you thought someone eating your lunch was bad, imagine if you discovered that “generalized Uniswap” was patented. It will only get worse. These kinds of systems will eventually replace the financial backbone of our economy, and they belong in the public domain.

Fortunately, there is already a dedicated class of institutions for doing research for the good of the public, and which attract the top-tier contributors who don’t like legal and political battles: Academia.

Universities have had hundreds of years to learn how to balance resources between researchers and supporting roles like lawyers. Universities are not easily bullied by corporations.