Thursday, August 20, 2009

Software patents: broad, stifling and unfair

(posted comment on ZDNet article "Examine the patent that made selling Microsoft Word a crime")

The problem with patenting processes or algorithms - not necessarily even in computer software - is that we end up with extremely broad or obvious patents whose sole purpose is to allow the patent holder to eventually sue large companies and get (obscenely) rich, and not to safeguard investment in new inventions and products as was originally intended.

If you write a program using simple common sense and happen to "re-invent" something that's patented, that's a strong hint that the patent is too general or obvious.

This is why we have ridiculous patents on "not having to click on a control for it to display dynamic content in a web browser" (Eolas), or "method of swinging on a swing" (United States Patent 6368227, which in itself should be evidence that the US patent system needs to be destroyed and rebuilt by people with an IQ above 30).

What's next? "A method of lifting heavy objects by using one's legs, not one's back"? Or, following Eolas's lead, "not having to say 'abracadabra' and turn around three times before turning on a computer"?
And how is $280m a reasonable amount of "damages", when i4i has produced nothing that could be damaged? Where is their competing product which is suffering in the marketplace due to competition with the patent-infringing Office?

And to those arguing that Microsoft/everyone should do their "due diligence" by researching patents, have you ever written a computer program? Can you really imagine searching for patents that might cover every single aspect of the code you're writing?
Programmers produce code that solves the problems at hand. They do not think "hmm, maybe what we need is to store some text separately to where the formatting information for that text is stored. That makes sense. Better check if that is software-patented!"
Imagine trying to speak to someone while having to look up every individual word you use to check that it's not in some arbitrary blacklist. It would be an unproductive nightmare.
And on top of that, patent search is extremely difficult because they're often worded in an inconsistent, generic or confusing way.

Software patents do nothing good for anybody other than patent trolls and lawyers. For everyone else in the world, they only hold back science and progress. Get rid of software patents in the US now, and keep them out of the EU too.

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