Things have been busy, so I haven't been able to add to my ongoing series
of posts on intellectual property until now. I've also been working on a post for the series that is a bit involved, which has taken extra time. However, just as I'm working on finishing that up, the various friend of the court briefs on the Bilski case were due, which is a perfect opportunity to discuss the question of business model and software patents. Back in February, we mentioned that the Bilski case was a big deal, as it gave the appeals court that handles patent issues (CAFC) a chance to admit it made a mistake
in allowing patents on software and business models. Some of the various individuals and groups who filed briefs have written about them, but Dennis Crouch over at Patently-O has an excellent summary and many of the amici briefs
available for download.
As you might imagine, with 30 different amici briefs filed, they represent a wide variety of opinions, with some companies like Accenture and American Express in favor of allowing these patents, and others like IBM and SAP explaining why these patents don't make much sense. Red Hat (expectedly) explained how software patents harm open source development
(and how open source shows that patents aren't necessary for software innovation). The group End Software Patents highlighted some ridiculous lawsuits
resulting from software patents (and even noted that CAFC's own website violates some software patents). The EFF focused in a bit more on the very specifics of the argument at hand and suggested a three-step litmus test
to determine whether an invention is actually technological.
So How Come Software And Business Models Are Patentable In The First Place
For many years people simply assumed that software and business models weren't patentable. It was pretty well established that patents needed to be tied to a real, tangible technology -- even if there didn't need to be a working model. The courts had recognized for many years that a "process" could be patentable, and that was codified in the law in 1952 by the patent act written by Giles Rich. Rich later went on to serve on CAFC interpreting the very law he had a major hand in writing, almost always in favor of extending what could be patented.
In 1981 the Supreme Court ruled in the Diamond v. Diehr
case, saying that the patent office shouldn't dismiss a patent application just because it's software, noting that if it was tied to a technology, then the entire combination of technology and software could be patentable. It made it clear, however, that algorithms, by themselves, were not patentable. That's somewhat problematic, as it assumes a concrete world where the technology and the algorithms aren't mixed together. Following this, most decisions on patents were left to CAFC, who went through a series of cases trying to refine and hone in on what was and was not patentable when it came to software. This went on until 1998 when CAFC decided the State Street case
, which basically said both software and business models are patentable -- and that they've always been patentable
, quoting a phrase first used in a Congressional report in 1952 that "anything under the sun made by man" is patentable. This statement has all sorts of problems, of course, because when you get into intangible goods and algorithms and business models, it's not always clear if that's something "made by man" or merely an explanation of something that was already there. Either way, the State Street decision opened the floodgates.
Suddenly there was a massive rush to the patent office to apply for both business model and software patents. Researchers, for example noted that from 1995 (before the lower court ruled on State Street) to 2001 (two years after the Supreme Court refused to hear State Street) the number of business method patents grew by nearly 3,000% (yes, 3,000%). Things became even worse because there were so many fewer software and business method patents prior to this case, patent examiners had much less "prior art" to go on. Typically, examiners use things like earlier patents as well as journal articles to determine prior art. But, there weren't patents on earlier software and business models and not many journal articles either. So plenty of bad patents got through. The patent system itself became overwhelmed, and the incentive structure started encouraging examiners to approve patents when it doubt. And that's how we got to some of the mess we're in today.
The Case For Software and Business Model Patents
Let's start with the case being made in favor of such patents. Again, with so many amici, there are a ton of different opinions offered here (and they certainly don't all agree with each other). But the simplest argument being made is reflected in the BSA's opening argument which is the same core defense of the patent system overall. It goes like this: patents are supposed to promote the progress, and we want progress promoted, so of course software and business models should be patentable. This argument, obviously, ignores the question (and all of the evidence) suggesting that patents don't actually promote the progress, but we'll leave that aside for now. Related to this, companies like American Express and Accenture trot out the claim that patents have tremendous beneficial impacts on the economy (again, without proof).
From there, a few of the briefs jump off into claims about how our modern economy is different than in the past. Rather than tangible goods and manufacturing, we're now a society of services and intangible goods, leading to the claim that if patents were helpful in those old days, they should also be extended to this new economy. Regulatory Data Corp. takes this point a step further by claiming in its second argument that "applied economics" is a part of "the useful arts" that are supposed to be protected under patent law. RDC, by the way, also has a bit of fun at the beginning of its brief talking about how its software stops terrorists, hinting at the idea that without patents, the terrorists would win. Many of these briefs also argue on the precedent of prior cases and the idea that creating a specific "exemption" from patentability is a bad thing and would do more harm than good.
Effectively, the arguments are:
The Case Against Software and Business Model Patents
- Innovation is good, patents encourage innovation, therefore, of course patents should apply to software and business models.
- The world we live in is different than it was in the past. When patents were first conceived of, everything was mechanical and tangible, but the world is different now. This argument, effectively suggests that intangible things (software, business models) don't have any different characteristics than tangible things (which is absolutely incorrect, but it sounds good).
- Courts have held (and the law has been changed to reflect) that processes can be patented, even if ideas cannot be. Software and business models are processes, not ideas.
- Anything under the sun made by man can be patented, and software and business models are made by man.
- Drawing dotted lines about what is and what is not patentable decreases the flexibility of the system and makes it ineffective (which I believe is the strongest argument made in these briefs).
For folks who read Techdirt and work in the software industry, I'm sure the basics won't come as much of a surprise. The arguments revolve around the fact that you're not supposed to be able to patent an idea -- and then making it clear that software and business models by themselves are really just ideas. They need to be tied to some sort of tangible technology to actually be considered patentable. Microsoft, Dell, Symantec, IBM, SAP and others all make that point. The EFF takes things a bit further to suggest its test for whether or not something is "technological." The EFF also highlights how much harm patents on purely non-technological material may cause -- noting that it limits the normal delivery of important information. The ACLU picks up on this as well, suggesting in its brief that software and business model patents fundamentally run the risk of violating one's First Amendment rights and argues that First Amendment rights should trump patent rights.
Effectively, the arguments are:
- You cannot patent an idea, and business models and software are really ideas, not technology or processes.
- There needs to be some actual technology for it to be patentable
- There is real economic harm being caused by these types of patents
- Software and business models, due to being intangible, work differently than tangible goods, and therefore do not need patent protection for innovation -- and, in fact, such protection can harm them.
- The fact that these patents can get in the way of the Freedom of Speech should be a concern
There are many more arguments made within the briefs, and you can dig into them if you'd like -- but I believe that's a decent summary of both sides.
So Should The Court Get Rid Of Software And Business Model Patents?
To be honest, this question is a lot trickier than it sounds at first, and my answer may surprise some people. Part of the issue is how you look at the question being discussed -- and on this I agree with some (though definitely not all) of what Stanford professor Mark Lemley wrote in his brief. While I disagree with the claims in his brief that a loss of these patents would decrease innovation, he does make an important point: the real problem isn't in what's being patented, it's in patents that shouldn't be granted getting approved in the first place. Furthermore, if the court cuts out all software and business models, people will just rewrite their patents in a manner to make it appear as though their business models and software really have a "technology" component. In other words, the real net effect may be meaningless.
He then argues that it doesn't make sense to create a special "exemption" for software and business models. This is the same sort of thing that many others arguing in favor of software and business method patents claim. It's effectively a "why should we carve out a special exemption for these things?" And they're right
. We shouldn't carve out a special exemption -- but not for the reasons they think. Carving out an exemption implies that these types of things really do deserve patent protection, except for the fact that they're software or business models. It's granting the premise that they're patentable. That's a problem.
The real issues is that most software and business model patents shouldn't be granted at all in the first place, but not because they're software or business models, but because they don't meet the criteria of what deserves a patent. They are often neither new nor non-obvious to those skilled in the art -- and patents on them most certainly do not promote progress. So there doesn't need to be a special exemption because they already shouldn't qualify for patents.
As anyone who has worked in business or in software knows, both business models and software evolve constantly
over time. They are not static at all, but highly dynamic -- often driven by changes in the market. It is that market that forces the innovation to occur, and doing anything to limit
the ability for anyone to change or modify their model or software only hinders that innovation. So, there shouldn't be a special "exemption" for these goods -- it should just be recognized that they are unlikely to qualify for patent protection in the first place.
So while I agree that software and business models should not be patentable, the Bilski case worries me somewhat. If the court does effectively create an "exemption" for software and business models, it's setting a dangerous precedent that could be revoked (or gamed). It also could make things worse for all other kinds of patents. Instead, there should be straightforward rules that apply to all patents
that determine whether or not an invention meets the basic criteria of being new and non-obvious and
whether or not a patent is necessary to promote the progress of that space. With that sort of recognition in place, you don't need a special exemption at all. It would just make it clear that software and business methods would almost never qualify for patent protection in the first place, while also raising questions about the patentability of many other things as well.
So, in the end, I don't think that software and business models deserve patent coverage -- but I worry that the results of the Bilski case could lead to many more problems for the entire patent system by suggesting that software and business methods get "special treatment." In the end, it seems unlikely that the courts are going to see it this way at all, so a decision in Bilski severely limiting software and business method patents may be a short-term solution, but it would really just be a band-aid on a much bigger problem.
Links to other posts in the series: