Gates likened this ecosystem to how pharmaceutical companies protect their IP while allowing Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to reuse their drugs and vaccine formulas at marginal costs in impoverished nations.
Having stepped away from working at Microsoft full-time in 2006, Gates focuses most of his attention on the Foundation, which attacks global problems such as poverty and inadequate health care. The Foundation has saved 10 million lives, thanks in part to its partnerships with pharmaceutical companies, which rely on patent laws to make money, Gates said.
"Thank God for patent laws that allow them to sell drugs," Gates said. "It's essentially a transfer of people buying drugs in the rich world that allow these things to be done at marginal cost."
Because the most impoverished countries don't have patent laws, "we never run into IP problems" when reusing these formulas for medicine, he said.
"It's a complex system. Anybody who thinks getting rid of [patent laws] would make a better world, I can certainly tell you that is crazy," he said.
Gates also praised the emergence of massively open online courses, or MOOCs, which he said have provided immense value for education, though much more needs to be done to bring the full education experience to people online, he said.
"We're at the beginning of something really quite profound, even though the temptation to oversimplify it is really quite great," Gates said, adding that "Teaching has many different aspects."
Many MOOCs now focus on what Gates called "the big lecture," lectures given by notable and entertaining professors, such as Walter Lewin's physics courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's OpenCourseWare.
"If we think of that as the only part that goes on in learning, then we'd be missing where kids are doing problems, where they are in labs, where they are in study groups, where they would be discussing topics -- many things don't fit that big lecture format," Gates said. Social networking software can help replicate these activities at comparatively little cost, according to Gates.
"At the end of the day, a lot of education is about getting the credential that helps with your employability," Gates said. Traditionally, this has been done at a university, with the diploma showing proof of competence. A diploma offers proof of what you know, coupled with how you learned it.
"I see those things decoupling," Gates said. "The way you prove you have certain skills can be very straightforward, and there can be a lot of people competing to help you gain that knowledge."
Gates was not so optimistic when asked if he though the art of software programming has improved over the past few decades.
"Is programming today much different than 10 years ago or 20 years ago? Not really," Gates said. the challenge "to take domain knowledge and encode that in a way that is transparent, understandable, easy to update" is about as difficult as it has ever been, he said.
"I know there is work [being done] along those lines, but you could have said that 20 years ago."