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Polish me no Patents

In http://discuss.fogcreek.com/joelonsoftware/default.asp?cmd=show&ixPost=167500&ixReplies=64

I make what sounded a rhetorical point as to whether anyone reading here has ever been seriously affected by a software patent to the point of either loss or causing a change in development or marketing.

It wasn't meant to be rhetorical, so I'll ask it again here in its own virgin question.

Simon Lucy
Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Or has anyone stopped a business rival stealing their ideas thanks to a patent? Or derived significant income from same.

Thanks.


Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Microsoft seems to be getting the shaft from that Eolas patent.  And if they fail in their appeal we'll all be directly affected (to the negative) by it.

Almost Anonymous
Tuesday, July 27, 2004

I'd be fairly amazed if they actually lose their appeal, their original case didn't seem very well put together. I imagine the lawyers are better motivated this time around.

Simon Lucy
Tuesday, July 27, 2004

This is really quite a naive question.  Serious money changes hands because of software patents. 

As just one example, google for Forgent Networks.  They have already won $90 million in JPEG patent lawsuits/shakedowns/licensing and are currently suing Apple Computer, Dell, Hewlett-Packard IBM, Canon, Creative Labs, JVC, Xerox, Adobe Systems and Macromedia.

free(malloc(-1))
Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Maybe the legal settlements they reached with their adversaries prohibit them from commenting...that's a pretty common provision these days :-/

Try looking for the "League for Programming Freedom" website for somewhat old information on software patent problems, including examples where person X invents something, or maybe thousands of people invent something, and later person/corporation Y 'invents' it and gets a patent on it. 

I have found some incredible patents on the relatively obvious, that have gotten in the way of projects I was interested in (or already working on.)  There are so many ideas that are so obvious that the idea of *applying for a patent on them* is *not* obvious.  Then there are many things that are hard to do without infringing one of tens of thousands of patents on obvious ideas.  But I have two good reasons not to explain the projects I would like to do and how they conflict with the patents on obvious ideas. 

1. I want to exploit my ideas myself first, if I can find a way to weasel around one or more ridiculously broad patents on the obvious.

2. If I have invented a technique, or conceived a project, that happens to conflict with a ridiculously broad or stupid patent, and I explain my idea to the world, anyone who wants to use *my* idea will put the patent holder(s) in a position to demand royalties for using *my* idea.  Holders of stupid and/or evil patents will have the opportunity to extort money from *my* idea, and their willful stupidity and/or evil will be rewarded.  I refuse to make stupid and/or evil patents more valuable.  Let those patents' owners go bankrupt and rot in Hell.

If I can explain an obvious idea so obtusely that it seems unobvious, I may be able to patent it.
Tuesday, July 27, 2004

I did some work for a guy who had a neat idea and patented it. Then he did nothing with  except shoot himself in the foot and ignore the patent.

Two years later I wanted to do something using related technology but couldn't, because of the guy's patent. So I lost a trillion dollars. Well maybe not quite a trillion, but I think I could have turned out a product with a serious good market.

And the guy still hasn't done anything with the thing, and is limping in both feet from where he's shot himself.

Hardware Guy
Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Hardware Guy,

Can't you talk to this foot-shooter and come to some mutually agreeable deal regarding the patent ?

If you think you have a market, offer him a piece of it, in exchange for the patent, or at least a license to use the technology.

Just a thought.

Nemesis
Wednesday, July 28, 2004

I'm not sure its particularly naive.  I think the JPEG actions were all avoidable.

Its true that everyone that had signed a mumming agreement as part of whatever process wouldn't be able to say anything I was interested in whether there'd be comments such as the one from " If I can explain an obvious idea..."

Personally, I suffer no loss of sleep as to whether I'm transgressing any software patents, I doubt I am, but even if I were to I'm not worth pursuing.

So far, this bears out my perception that software patenting at the moment is a defensive tactic by companies and that there is the occasional predator company solely in existence to milk large corporations.

Simon Lucy
Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Personally I've never been affected, however a very good friend was forced into shelling out over a patent for a "network of music processing devices" by MIT.

As he said the patent was probably invalid and they almost certainly didn't infringe, and they came close to going to court, however the cost of defending this would have been could have been upto $2m and the money they paid out to defend themselves would almost certainly not be recoverable from the other side. In the end they just paid up.

One big problem with places like MIT sueing you is that the normal defensive patent swap isn't an option. Ditto for the companies whose sole purpose in life in patent litigation.

In the UK the situation is slightly different as the costs would probably be awarded against the losing party, this means that the case would have been worth fighting.

Peter Ibbotson
Wednesday, July 28, 2004

In Britain 90% of cases are settled out of court.  Roughly 10 a year aren't.  The reason being is that the costs of fighting are of the order of £300k for a simple case (the Dyson case was about £9M) and even quite large companies can't afford it.  Plus most people aren't prepared to risk having to pay the otherside's costs.

a cynic writes...
Wednesday, July 28, 2004

If the high legal costs of fighting are a big part of the problem with patents, why aren't the open sourcers clamouring for lower legal fees?

.
Wednesday, July 28, 2004

No the major problem with software patents is that they're largely fundamentally invalid, they aren't particularly novel and are more in the way of algorithms than new processes or inventions.

I don't have any argument with a well founded patent about a process or object of manufacture which is novel.

Simon Lucy
Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Simon:

I agree.  I think we need software patents for complex inobvious inventions.  To me the Spreadsheet is a prime example.  Had software patents been accepted at the time I think this was a pretty cool invention.

Now when you can patent something that a programmer or UI designer comes up with on his own in the course of a day to solve a pretty obvious problem (hey, customers hate having to click around a lot to get things done.  How about if we made it so they only had to click once to order something!) then you are really starting to make software more difficult than it needs to be.

name withheld out of cowardice
Wednesday, July 28, 2004

I think you'll find the problem is invalid (or deeply suspect) patents  *plus* the high costs involved.  If the costs of fighting a dodgy patent where negligable then cases would be fought and the rubbish ones overturned. 

As it is the choice comes down to pay the blackmail or risk bankruptcy.  Not many people are that brave, especially if it's only a hobby.

a cynic writes...
Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Ever since Amazon.com patented one click  I have been unable to use my mouse.  I would say that has had a pretty serious impact on my life....

Misunderstood
Wednesday, July 28, 2004

I have to confess that I have a software patent applied for.

My employer (a big multinational) pays a $1000 bonus for every idea that they accept and file, so I put one in. It's really silly but probably will get the patent; so in that sense I have been effected by a patent, but not adversely, I got the check.

The reason my employer files for them is the usual: they can be used as bargaining chips if they ever get sued by another big company, and mostly it looks good in their marketing fluff that they're so innovative they were awarded more patents than their competition. The vast majority of patents are of no relevance.

Regular Poster
Wednesday, July 28, 2004

For all you Slashdot fans, there's a discussion on this very topic today:

http://games.slashdot.org/games/04/07/28/1529222.shtml?tid=204&tid=155

Tom H
Wednesday, July 28, 2004

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