A Patent-Holding Software Engineer Explains Why Software Patents Harm Innovation

from the the-system-at-work dept

It's no surprise that many technologists and engineers dislike software patents -- even as their company's execs and lawyers push them to get more patents. Stephen Kinsella highlights an anonymous comment from a software engineer who clearly works for IBM (though he doesn't come out and say that directly), where he explains how IBM actively encourage engineers to file for as many patents as possible (it rewards them with monetary bonuses). This is not new of course -- an awful lot of companies do this. However, the guy goes on to explain why even though he holds patents and believes very strongly that his company makes and sells nuermous innovative products, he believes all this patenting is damaging to the process of innovation:
Speaking from my own experience, corporations (such as the one I work for) spend a lot of money to innovate. However, I would "press that button" and get rid of IP law immediately, given the chance. I agree completely with the arguements made in the article - as such, I'll just bring up a few other issues:

I think IP law is incredibly damaging to innovation and competition. In the case of software patents, moreso in that they take resources (primarily money which gets redirected to legal teams) from firms who are forced to research existing patens, and also defend themselves against IP lawsuits.

Many software patents are particularly silly. Many of these are issued for algorithms - the vast majority of the time, these algorithms are only available outside the company via patent! That is, when they are shipped externally, it is in a form that is not readable (object code). Sure - this can be reverse engineered. But for a particularly complex program or operating system, this in itself would be a colossal endeavor. Yet, a patent is issued for it - and the patent describes exactly what the algorithm does!

Another firm could look at the patent and use the invention. In most cases, it would be impossible to tell that they've "stolen" anything. Here they are counterproductive.

I should also mention the obvious - the corporation which holds the patent already has a huge advantage! They will ship a product with these innovations before any other corporation can ship its' product. Quite frankly it will generally be a significant period of time before another product can be shipped which contains these innovations - even if the innovation was immediately obvious and known. This will not generally be the case.

Then you have the patents for user interface - these are just silly. I've seen patents issued (granted, this was a long time ago) for using a particular color on a "dummy" terminal.

Anyway, I hope I do not sound like a hypocrite (because I hold IP patents). As I said, it is a part of my job. I also cannot fault my company for taking advantage of whatever silly laws are created. I simply view this as another case of the state interfering with the market, and the market adjusting to exploit the foolishness of the laws.
Well said.
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Filed Under: engineer, patents, software patents
Companies: ibm


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  1. icon
    chris (profile), 22 Jan 2009 @ 8:17am

    i love when insiders speak out

    i love hearing when people inside of and benefiting from a flawed system speak out against them.

    this is why i like cory doctorow's writing. as a sci-fi writer, doctorow has much to gain from IP law, and yet he, like the anonymous software engineer, would 'would "press that button" and get rid of IP law immediately, given the chance.'

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