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Monday, April 10, 2006

A Note on Software Patents

A big issue discussed in the computer software world is the current patent system, and how they apply to software. The issue arises from the fact that large software companies are bombarding the US PTO(Patent and Trademark Office) with patent requests. As a result, they get a large number of patents made on everything they develop. By doing this, they can effectively push out competitors from developing the same sort of product, making a veritable intellectual monopoly.

This is a common topic discussed on Slashdot and the most recent one is based on an essay on the topic by Paul Graham.

I found a particularly good comment that struck me as the reason software patents are not as valid as patents on a new lawnmower or 3D glasses. Patents are not allowed to protect ideas or thoughts themselves, but the production of that idea into a profitable form. They are meant to encourage inventors to publish their secrets in exchange for a guarantee of government protection from copying, so the ideas don't get lost when the inventor dies.

Software is at once the description of a an idea as well as being the product itself. There is little cost to transforming working source code into a profitable form. You just compile it(sometimes) and put it on a website. Simple.

Contrast this with someone having a working idea for an anti-gravity machine. In order to make it profitable, they'll need to spend a ton of money on making prototypes and investing in manufacturing facilities and personnel. If someone were to get ahold of one of these and replicate it, the original inventor would have lost all that money not only on research and development(software companies also do), but also on being able to make enough of them to be profitable(which software doesn't have to deal with).

A common example of an absurd software patent is Amazon's one-click purchase function. Yes, they have a patent on that. No joke! If you make a function on your website whereby someone can make one click and have a purchase placed, you can be sued by Amazon!

Well, what do you think of that?

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