Fog Creek Software
Discussion Board




software patents and development in the U.S.

In a recent case, Microsoft argued that due to its potential liability under U.S. patent law, they may "pick up manufacturing operation for the golden master (object-code CDs), go one hundred miles north to Vancouver, set up operations in Vancouver, and burn its golden master CDs there."

I'm curious to know what other developers think about software patents in the U.S.  Are software patents restraining innovation in the U.S. software industry?  Do any developers that post here find themselves regularly designing around patents, or do most of you not worry about them?  Also, have any of you been threatened with an infringement action?

Thanks for your thoughts.

patent attorney
Friday, July 02, 2004

Software patents are evil.

MilesArcher
Friday, July 02, 2004

Dear "patent attorney," all the patent attorneys I know are supportive of patents and their role in encouraging innovation. That includes several research academics.

You sound like an open source troll.

real patent attorney
Friday, July 02, 2004

Or are you trying to find some example cases for Larry (Lessig) to use in his next book?

real patent attorney
Friday, July 02, 2004

"ll the patent attorneys I know are supportive of patents and their role in encouraging innovation."

heh, thats interesting.  most programmers (99%) oppose software patents and believe that currently their primary use is to stifle innovation.
Mr Bill Gates is also on record as opposing software patents :)

I wonder who is better informed on the subject, patent attorneys or computer programmers....

FullNameRequired
Friday, July 02, 2004

"""supportive of patents and their role in encouraging innovation"""

...in finding newer, more effective ways to separate individuals and small businesses from their money.  :)

Phillip J. Eby
Friday, July 02, 2004

I expect that the same previously-mentioned 99% of programmers who oppose patents and believe they stifle innovation also take no steps to ensure their code doesn't violate any patents.

In other words, this is one of those "well, it doesn't affect me, but I'm sure it really has an impact on lots of people..." issues.

Should be working
Friday, July 02, 2004

"In other words, this is one of those "well, it doesn't affect me, but I'm sure it really has an impact on lots of people..." issues."

Ive only had a problem with one patent so far, but remember that software patents in their current form are a relatively new thing.

I fully expect this problem to get a _lot_ worse in the next 10 years....to the point where in a paradox of epic proportions so-called 'third-world' countries will have a huge advantage over the rest of us because their countries dont have similar patent laws....leaving them free to use new ideas and innovations however they like, and also to base further new ideas and innovations on those already in circulation.

IMO the biggest problem is that I have no real idea whether Im using patented ideas or not until someone contacts me about them....I dont know whats been patented and what has not and I dont have time to look....indeed, its perfectly possible that by looking I will actually be shooting myself in the foot; as Linus so famously pointed out.

Software Patents are not needed to encourage software innovation...they have only been made possible relatively recently and innovation was certainly taking place long before they were available.

FullNameRequired
Saturday, July 03, 2004

"I expect that the same previously-mentioned 99% of programmers who oppose patents and believe they stifle innovation also take no steps to ensure their code doesn't violate any patents."

Are you kidding? Do you realize how many software patents there are, each vaguely worded such that they cover virtually all software artifacts (by design, of course)?

The idea that everytime someone creates a piece of software they scour the patent office (hypothetically of every nation that patents software) looking for any overlap is absurd, especially given that the patent files are rife with trivial, absurd patents that should never have been granted (and which will collapse if an attempt to pursue them were attempted against a target that could afford to fight the battle).

There is no doubt that there are legal protections required for software, and copyright provides that, and that there are legal protections required for truly unique innovations. What we have in the current patent system, though, is tens of thousands of BULLSHIT patents that basically take elements of everyday life and add the phrase "on a computer". It is truly disgusting.

Dennis Forbes
Saturday, July 03, 2004

patents... are not a new problem. they have been problematic for decades, used by companies to screw other companies, and mostly useless to the little guy. that's why in the 80's some patent lawyer made headlines, because a little guy actually won (it was the intermittent wiper case... which was probably overbroad anyway. the lawyer had a few other cases too.)

so no, they rarely help innovation.

oh, and at least some patent lawyers are in it because it's a fascinating and lucrative field, not because it's inherently good.

mb
Saturday, July 03, 2004

Patents were originally intended to protect the little guy from some large company with more resources coming in and stealing an idea that the little guy had created but didn't have the power to mass market.  It was supposed to let this little guy dominate the market with the new invention and be able to compete fairly with the old big players - levelling the playing field to some extent.

Now, however, because getting the patent costs quite a sum, it's mostly the large companies that can afford to hire a lot of researchers and the lawyers to file the patents.

Sometimes it works as intended, but not much any more.

Aaron F Stanton
Saturday, July 03, 2004

>> take elements of everyday life and add the phrase "on a computer"

Or rather, "on an information processing device, such as, but not limited to, a computer." ;P

Seriously, there is a patent for an abs() function that doesn't use branching. I was talking on IRC, someone asked about a better abs() function, we chatted for ten minutes and came up with the algorithm, only to discover it was *patented*.

Doesn't patent law preclude "obvious" implementations? It took us *ten* minutes to work it out.

Alex
Saturday, July 03, 2004

Even the process of developing Software is patented multiple times. In fact you can't write any single line of Code without any patent violation.

THE APEMAN
Saturday, July 03, 2004

>"Or rather, "on an information processing device, such as, but not limited to, a computer." ;P

More like this: utilizing a method of processing a plurality of data elements through an array of integrated circuits controlled by a plurality of electronic signals in a combination of synchronous and asynchronous cycles for producing output to a human readable interface on which a plurality of computation results may be manifested by way of a visual apparatus that transmits photons in the visible spectrum to the ocular region of the operator.

Basically, to get a patent approved you just have to make the wording so obfuscated the patent examiner cannot find prior art -- because he/she doesn't know what in the world to look for.

Then when suing somebody, pluck selected words and phrases out of the massive patent text and reinterpret them to apply to somebody else's creation.

T. Norman
Saturday, July 03, 2004

>> circuits controlled by a plurality of electronic signals

You're not covering optical computers.

Gosh, what limited wording... ;)

Alex
Saturday, July 03, 2004

"all the patent attorneys I know are supportive of patents and their role in encouraging innovation"

I think if all the $(X) you know completely agree about something, you probably don't have a large enough sample.  I know of attorneys on all sides of this issue.

This is like saying "All the programmers I know think C# is better than Java."  Ok, I'm sure some do, but that doesn't mean all do...

not a lawyer
Monday, July 05, 2004

Patents weren't created in the first place to help 'little' guys over 'big' guys.

They were created when all property, including intellectual property belonged to the Crown.  The Crown granted the original inventor of whatever the device was a monopoly on producing it as a reward and to encourage innovation.

I think the original period may have been ten years.

Simon Lucy
Monday, July 05, 2004

Dear "not a lawyer," my reference to patent attorneys supporting the role of patents in innovation was in response to the OP, who styled himself "patent attorney." I was making the point that the views expressed by the OP didn't sound like those of a patent attorney at all, but they do sound exactly like open source propaganda.

You say you know attorneys on both sides of this issue. But are you perhaps talking of lawyers in general, as opposed to patent attorneys? I know there are stacks of legal academics who question patents, but not so many patent attorneys.

real patent attorney
Monday, July 05, 2004

On Simon's post on Royal monopolies:

In the 17th Century, I think just after the Glorious Revolution, the monopolies were abolished. Patents and copyrights were retained as a special case.

frustrated
Monday, July 05, 2004

Early development of airplanes and vacuum tube devices were held up by patent disputes.

In the case of aircraft, the patents were only in the USA, so, by the time WW I came around, the rest of the industrial world was ahead of USA in development of aircraft.

dot for this one
Monday, July 05, 2004

You know, the US economy is the biggest and most successful in the world, and it's been the engine of technology growth. It did this under a system of patents.

It's worth considering these facts when reading criticisms by lefties.

real patent attorney
Monday, July 05, 2004

actually, you'll find that many advances come when everybody is copying each other, and completely ignores patents.

in the computer field, everyone actually creating things ignores patents. great growth came, for example, with the web, when people even ignored copyrights. (view source).

then when the rate of growth slows, the parasites come in. i'm guessing you're in the parasite lawyer category, given that you deny that there are even lawyers who disagree with you.

mb
Monday, July 05, 2004

"Mr Bill Gates is also on record as opposing software patents"

References, please?

Mr Gates is on record for having a whole bunch of patents, and he's really not known for his relaxed and open attitude to letting people use what is technically known as "Microsoft's Intellectual Property".

I'm sure he hates it when other companies can keep stuff from Microsoft, but if you can show us where we can get a no-cost no-restrictions license to use Microsoft's patented technology in commercial and/or open source applications I'ld be quite grateful.


Monday, July 05, 2004

"References, please?"

heres one, there are various other places hes made mention of them about, have a play with google.

http://www.bralyn.net/etext/literature/bill.gates/challenges-strategy.txt

its an interesting read :)


"Mr Gates is on record for having a whole bunch of patents, "

which is hardly proof that he is for or against them....as everyone knows (including you, I assume) there are reasons to accumulate patents that have no bearing on their 'ggodness' level.

"and he's really not known for his relaxed and open attitude to letting people use what is technically known as "Microsoft's Intellectual Property".

is he not?  Im trying to recall cases where microsoft has sued for patent infringement in the past...perhaps you can help me?

"I'm sure he hates it when other companies can keep stuff from Microsoft, but if you can show us where we can get a no-cost no-restrictions license to use Microsoft's patented technology in commercial and/or open source applications I'ld be quite grateful."

But regardless.....just because hes not in favour of software patents in theory absolutely does not mean he isn't going to use and defend them in practice.....but of course you know that :)

FullNameRequired
Tuesday, July 06, 2004

"You know, the US economy is the biggest and most successful in the world, and it's been the engine of technology growth. It did this under a system of patents."

Before the 1980s far fewer patents were granted and litigated.

Today in an environment of loads of crappy patents and crappy patent lawsuits, the success and its technology growth is declining relative to other large economies.  The dollar is devaluing, the trade deficit is increasing, and the worldwide market share of American technological goods is decreasing.

T. Norman
Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Timeline.

1. Mr. Jobs steals a whole bunch of ideas Xerox is too dumb to capitalize on. 

2. IBM rushes a PC to market made out of readily available parts rather than proprietary components.  The result is that the system is easily cloned by Dell, Gateway, Compaq, HP and others.

3. Mr. Gates copies a whole bunch of ideas Mr. Jobs stole. 

4. The multi-billion dollar U.S. software industries and personal computer industries are born and quickly skyrocket to global dominance.

4. Software patents arrive.

5. Patent attorney implies patents and intellectual property rights are the reason for all this success and explosive growth.

Right...
Wednesday, July 07, 2004

*  Recent Topics

*  Fog Creek Home