The death notice of the day in the New York Times is another instance of a favorite theme: the almost complete disconnect between intellectual property rights and creativity. The subject is H. Edward Roberts, inventor of the MITS Altair--as the Times describes it, "the first inexpensive general-purpose microcomputer," and an early mentor to the bad boys of Seattle who went on to join the list of the world's richest men.
The point of this story is not so much that Bill Gates & Co "stole" anything from Roberts. The point is--well, two points. First, that if anybody here had a spark of creative insight, it was not Gates & Co but Roberts, the son of a guy who ran an appliance repair company, who looked at a mainframe and said "what if this were available to everybody?" Roberts created the company, built the computer--and then took his money off the table and moved on. He spent most of his life as a country doctor in Georgia.
Which brings me to my second point which is that the difference between Gates & Roberts is not simply that Roberts had more creative spark. It is that Gates really wanted money. And Roberts simply didn't want it that bad (or, as I suspect some of his grandchildren would say, "enough").
So there is nothing sinister about this story, as there may be in the stories of others who simply ripped off the ideas from which they went on to profit. But next time somebody tells you how much we need patents to protect creativity, remember Doc Roberts and the Altair 8000.