A Simple Explanation For Why Software Patents Are Dangerous

from the thank-you-Tim dept

We’ve been arguing about problems with patents — and software patents, in particular — for a long time, now. We’ve obviously paid a lot of attention to the RIM, NTP lawsuit. However, Tim Lee has just written up a great piece explaining exactly why software patents are extremely problematic. He points out how the RIM/NTP case has gone on for three years now, and there’s still no definitive answer from the US Patent Office as to whether or not the patents are valid. That’s a huge problem for any society that wants to encourage innovation. Imagine if every new piece of software that’s developed will need to go through this five or six year process of waiting for the USPTO to determine if patents it may or may not have infringed on are valid. Think how that will grind innovation to a halt in this country.

Tim highlights the obviousness problem in software patents — noting that “prior art” isn’t the right way to look at things, since many programmers faced with similar problems will come up with similar solutions. It’s not because they’re “stealing” each others’ “inventions,” but because they’re figuring out the best way to solve the specific problem at hand: “Is this really how we want to run our software industry? Do we really want to require lawyers to inspect every line of computer code to make sure a programmer didn’t accidentally “invent” something that some other company previously patented?… In effect, patents create a legal minefield for software developers simply trying to go about their business. Because the patent office gives out patents so promiscuously, the developer has no way of predicting when code he writes might run afoul of a somebody’s patent. That means that even if he developed every line of code himself, without looking at anyone else’s code, he still can’t be sure that somebody won’t come along and sue him for patent infringement.” Tim expresses hope that the impending shutdown of our politicians’ beloved Blackberries will cause them to rethink the patent system, but he’s probably giving them too much credit. While they may ignore the court order to keep their Blackberries running, it’s unlikely they’ll think about the larger issues at all.

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Comments on “A Simple Explanation For Why Software Patents Are Dangerous”

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Mousky (user link) says:

No Subject Given

Government will be exempt from any shutdown of the Blackberry network for exactly the reason you stated in your post. NTP does not want the Federal government to get involved because it knows that right now, as a patent troll, they have the upper hand. I thinkthat society is about to hit a wall on innovation in the software/high tech sector.

achacha says:

No Subject Given

SOftware patents are silly if you stand back and look at it. It is similar to writers patenting “the villain tries to off the hero with an elaborate scheme” in spy novels.. or “kids using magic and trickery to fool parents” in kids fantasy books… It is not done because it is obviously foolish; programming is just a different take on this old and wll known situation. What’s next patent on using PHP for building sites so people have to invent new languages?!

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