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Author Topic: Things We Could Do Without: Software Patents  (Read 6958 times)

housetier

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Things We Could Do Without: Software Patents
« on: October 06, 2006, 09:06:55 PM »
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That's right, you can have a patent on software. This does not mean the source code which is protected by copyright, but the idea in the code. An example is amazon's patent on their 1-click buy button. It is totally ridiculous but larger software companies do like these things as they can use their patent to keep down the competition.
:nono2:

Other big software companies strongly oppose such patents.

So if I could get a patent on "using groups of integers to encode multi-channel color values" or something along those (RGB,YMBC) lines, I could then sue ATI and Nvidia and Intel.
:greenclp:

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To ridicule these ridiculous patents and the system which grants them, several individuals have founded an organization against such software patents. Each month several software patents are presented and users vote the most ridiculous one, which is then awarded. From all the winners, a software patent of the year is selected.

Although this is primarily a European "problem" I want to encourage also my non-European friends to vote and spread the word because I think these software patents are ridiculous, awkward, and not good for competition. And when there is no competition, the comsumer loses. To argue yet another way: Competition is at the very heart of Capitalism and Free Market.
:hanged:

So, cast your vote :deal: and tell you mother, your sister and your sister's friends to do the same

JavaJones

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Re: Things We Could Do Without: Software Patents
« Reply #1 on: October 06, 2006, 09:19:53 PM »
This seems like the extension of the basic ability to copyright any method of doing something, which has always seemed a tad ridiculous to me as well. But then what about manufacturing process improvements that give people an edge? I don't know, it's a tough issue. It does seem ridiculous though that this same system also provides for patents on things like Sideways Swinging or Cat Toy Using A Laser Pointer (or any one of a number of other insane things). :D

Personally I think massive copyright and patent reform is the only good way out of the mess, but we'll probably have to make do with small victories, if any.

- Oshyan

housetier

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Re: Things We Could Do Without: Software Patents
« Reply #2 on: October 06, 2006, 09:36:24 PM »
The only worse patents are those on (human) gene sequences. I mean, nothing makes less sense than a patent on a more or less random mutation of RNS!

Back to the software: the waters are murky because many people are confused by copyright and patent. Basically everything that is created with a minimum of "original effort" (=not copying) is covered and protected by copyright. If you write software that does a certain thing, and, without looking at your code, I write different software doing the same thing/having the same effect, we do not infringe each other's copyrights.

However, if you manage to get the patent office issue a patent on "doing a certain thing" then any software doing this certain thing (or a similar thing) would "break" the patent protection. Whereas copyright protects your work, a patent keeps the competition in check.

I just want to have a patent on filing patents and then won't license it. The problem would be solved: no more patents issued. Too bad this dream is too ludicrous...

Companies in favor of software patents argue they need to protect their works. But the work is already protected by copyright! What they want to protect is their business modell! The dispute has become very emotional, which in turn means pure, naked facts are neglected.

But we can walk the emo path as well: just vote on the patents that don't feel right:)

f0dder

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Re: Things We Could Do Without: Software Patents
« Reply #3 on: October 07, 2006, 06:12:08 AM »
IMHO software patents isn't wrong per se. What's wrong is the ludicrously high lifetime of patents, and that they can be granted for extremely generic cases... and that often "prior art" isn't taken into consideration.

So... I'm against software patents as they look now, but I'm not against the idea in general. If somebody comes up with some really unique algorithm, I think it's fair enogh that they're granted a couple years patent on it - but not more, considering how fast-moving the software industry is.
- carpe noctem

NeilS

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Re: Things We Could Do Without: Software Patents
« Reply #4 on: October 07, 2006, 08:02:42 AM »
Companies in favor of software patents argue they need to protect their works. But the work is already protected by copyright! What they want to protect is their business modell! The dispute has become very emotional, which in turn means pure, naked facts are neglected.

Although "protecting your work" was one of the original goals of the patent system, it's not necessarily the primary reason companies obtain patents these days.

Large companies commonly use patents as bargaining chips when defending against other patent infrigement cases. Usually the patents on both sides are related, but they don't have to be. Large companies also tend to generate a lot of speculative patents these days, mainly to protect against patent trolls by covering areas of the "patent landscape" that trolls might try to gain a foothold in.

They prefer to maintain the status quo because they already have massive patent portfolios, so reducing the legal impact of patents would effectively reduce the perceived value of these portfolios. No large company is going to support patent reform as long as they have their shareholders to answer to.

For small companies (including startups), patents can have a large effect on the perceived value of the company, which can be critical when looking for funding. So, even if you have a great idea that you're confident no-one will be able to copy before you corner the market, investors will not typically share that confidence and will expect to see patents to help minimise competition and litigation from other companies. Patent reform is likely to be a mixed bag for small companies; it may level the playing ground a bit (against large companies with huge portfolios), but it might also make the path to investment much less clear.

IMHO software patents isn't wrong per se. What's wrong is the ludicrously high lifetime of patents, and that they can be granted for extremely generic cases... and that often "prior art" isn't taken into consideration.

So... I'm against software patents as they look now, but I'm not against the idea in general. If somebody comes up with some really unique algorithm, I think it's fair enogh that they're granted a couple years patent on it - but not more, considering how fast-moving the software industry is.

Yes, that's roughly my feeling on the subject at the moment. If we assume that the real goal is to protect inventors while maintaining a decent level of competition in the market, then the system needs to concentrate on reforming the lifespan and coverage of each type of patent that can be obtained, and adjust the rules to allow each type of market to operate optimally.

For example, it may be that software patents should be very short-lived and fairly specific, whereas manufacturing industry patents might need longer lives and a bit more generality.

JavaJones

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Re: Things We Could Do Without: Software Patents
« Reply #5 on: October 07, 2006, 03:38:16 PM »
But if someone invents an algorithm isn't it already protected by *copyright*? If someone rewrites the algorithm in a different way it's unique and has its own copyright, but a *patent* would prevent that because it can be generalized enough to apply to slightly different approaches to the same thing (e.g. "A method for purchasing items in a shopping cart using a single click" or whatever). I think software *patents* are a bit silly. Just like sideways swinging patents. ;)

- Oshyan

NeilS

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Re: Things We Could Do Without: Software Patents
« Reply #6 on: October 07, 2006, 06:46:23 PM »
But if someone invents an algorithm isn't it already protected by *copyright*? If someone rewrites the algorithm in a different way it's unique and has its own copyright, but a *patent* would prevent that because it can be generalized enough to apply to slightly different approaches to the same thing (e.g. "A method for purchasing items in a shopping cart using a single click" or whatever). I think software *patents* are a bit silly. Just like sideways swinging patents. ;)

Copyright protects a specific expression of an idea, rather than the idea itself, so it doesn't really offer any protection for something like an algorithm. You could use copyright to protect a written-down version of the algorithm, but that wouldn't protect what the algorithm means, nor would it stop anyone using that algorithm in their own software, since the written-down version is not what is actually expressed by the software.

JavaJones

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Re: Things We Could Do Without: Software Patents
« Reply #7 on: October 07, 2006, 06:52:23 PM »
Indeed, but why should the algorithm be protectable? What if the great mathematicisions of our history had "patented" their mathematical concepts, their proofs, etc. Would we be where we are with mathematical and scientific knowledge? I doubt it. I just don't see the value in extending from "protection of the unique expression of an idea" to "protection of the idea itself". The unique expression is the true creation of man and should be protected as "property" so long as we have a concept of such a thing, IMO. But the idea is no-ones property and cannot be proved to be such. It is a much more arbitrary way of dealing with ideas IMO.

- Oshyan

NeilS

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Re: Things We Could Do Without: Software Patents
« Reply #8 on: October 08, 2006, 01:36:00 PM »
Indeed, but why should the algorithm be protectable? What if the great mathematicisions of our history had "patented" their mathematical concepts, their proofs, etc. Would we be where we are with mathematical and scientific knowledge? I doubt it. I just don't see the value in extending from "protection of the unique expression of an idea" to "protection of the idea itself". The unique expression is the true creation of man and should be protected as "property" so long as we have a concept of such a thing, IMO. But the idea is no-ones property and cannot be proved to be such. It is a much more arbitrary way of dealing with ideas IMO.

I don't quite agree with your wording ("the unique expression is the true creation of man"), because that suggests that ideas are somehow less creative, and I don't think that's true. However, when it comes to protection, I do agree that protecting ideas is much more problematic than protecting unique expressions of ideas. The main problem is that a single idea could be used in a number of unique expressions, and so protecting an idea can hamper a lot of further work, which can be undesirable.

And I guess, when it comes down to fundamentals, I'm generally against protecting ideas. The way I see it, protecting an idea gives you two things: 1) The inventor of the idea gets a fair shot at exploiting the idea, and 2) Extensions of the idea and unique expressions of the idea tend to be restricted too much. If the benefits of (1) were more significant than the issues of (2), then I might be for protecting ideas, but I'm not convinved that the benefits of (1) are that great in reality.

I generally believe that the inventor of a new idea will tend to have a natural advantage in terms of exploiting it anyway, since he will have a head start and was smart enough to come up with the idea in the first place. OK, so there will be cases where a large company will see someone's great new idea, steal it, and overtake the inventor, but inventors can combat this to some extent by not releasing details too soon, and history has also taught us that radical new ideas are rarely stolen, mainly because people don't believe in new ideas until the evidence is staring them in the face.

The problem with this viewpoint, though, is that some ideas are so fundamental that they have lots of applications besides the one the inventor was considering at the time of invention, and the inventor's natural advantages won't normally stretch to all applications, so something like patents are the only way to give them a chance to exploit these other applications first as well. However, you could argue that this gives the inventor more than a "fair shot" at exploitation, but I guess different people have different definitions of what a "fair shot" actually means. I do think the current patent systems go far beyond any reasonable definition of fair shot, though.

That said, I'll happily admit that my opinion of how things should work is pretty idealistic, as is much of the anti-patent talk I've witnessed. There's nothing wrong with idealistic opinions, of course, but I think we'll have to accept that the reality of the situation is very complex, and that any change will be very slow and will probably only ever go so far.

JavaJones

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Re: Things We Could Do Without: Software Patents
« Reply #9 on: October 09, 2006, 05:27:29 PM »
What's idealistic about those opinions? In other words is it just the very idea of big patent reform that you think is idealistic, or that particular implementation? I don't see how a more limited approach to patent granting and patent lifespans is any more problematic than the current system, either in implementation or regulation. I do think concieving of widescale patent reform is a bit unrealistic, so yes perhaps idealistic, but then in Europe there is a lot going on in this area and if some of this debate and reform led to more limited patent lifespans and granting procedures they might lead by example. If benefits were notable, the US might eventually be forced to follow suit. US is becoming much less of a world-leading force these days...

- Oshyan

NeilS

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Re: Things We Could Do Without: Software Patents
« Reply #10 on: October 09, 2006, 06:39:13 PM »
The bit I consider to be idealistic is the notion that reform, even in moving to a system which many people agree is more sensible, is without consequences.

I don't have any doubts that having patents with shorter lifespans and reduced scope would be a better solution, had it been introduced a long time ago. What I do have serious doubts about is how quickly things can change from the position we find ourselves in currently, and how far it can realistically go.

There's so much invested in the current system (in terms of big business relying on its current form) that radically altering it simply cannot be consequence free. Whether the consequences will be dire or merely "problematic", I'm not sure anyone can say with any real confidence.

Although there are quite a few differences between European and US patents, I don't think they are as great as many people might think. A lot of the rules that would seem to make it harder to obtain software patents in Europe can be worked around to some extent. The situation might be better, but it's far from the "idealistic" goal.

JavaJones

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Re: Things We Could Do Without: Software Patents
« Reply #11 on: October 09, 2006, 06:42:21 PM »
I say make the change and let the chips fall where they may. It's no more frightening than many of the other world-threatening problems we face today, from nuclear war to running out of oil to pollution to population and hunger and on and on. I say bring it on! :D

- Oshyan

NeilS

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Re: Things We Could Do Without: Software Patents
« Reply #12 on: October 09, 2006, 06:45:14 PM »
You know, you could be right. With all the other stuff going on, maybe we wouldn't even notice any of the problems it might cause. :)

mouser

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Re: Things We Could Do Without: Software Patents
« Reply #13 on: April 20, 2010, 02:40:20 PM »
New film about absurdity of software patents: http://patentabsurdity.com/index.html

zridling

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Re: Things We Could Do Without: Software Patents
« Reply #14 on: April 20, 2010, 07:52:27 PM »
Great find, mouser.
___________________________________
Glyn Moody says it so much better than I could:

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"Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I write a lot about software patents. The reason is simple: they represent probably the greatest single threat to free software, far beyond that of any individual company. If software patents are invoked more widely, or – even worse – unequivocally accepted in Europe, then free software will be in serious trouble (so will traditional software, but at least the companies involved will be able to pay for lawyers, unlike most free software projects.) This makes fighting software patents one of the key tasks for the free software community.
...
"What that boils down to is that the Internet makes collaboration so easy and efficient that the benefits of sharing knowledge openly now outweigh any economic or social advantages that traditional intellectual monopolies like patents based on hoarding knowledge may once have had.

"The case against software patents is even stronger than against general patents, because software consists of algorithms, which are simply mathematics, and all patenting regimes accept that pure knowledge should not be patented (but then use various tricks to sneak software patents through anyway). Similarly, software is unusual in that it consists of many smaller, pre-existing elements put together in new ways: if any of those basic building blocks have been patented, it becomes almost impossible to code."