Patent reform now!


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Very important reading today for anyone even remotely involved with building web pages: an article from CNet with details on how Microsoft's recent loss in court to Eolas could mean substantial workarounds for any web developer with pages that contain technologies such as Macromedia Flash, Java Applets, or Adobe Acrobat PDF files:

"If you're currently using a plug-in, you will have to change your pages quite significantly."

This is a prime example of why software patents are too easy to obtain and once obtained they can cripple innovation and standards compliance. Furthermore, far too much development has been allowed to be done, using plug-in and applet technologies, during the time since the suit was first brought against Microsoft back in 1999. If there were any benevolence in Microsoft they would have settled with Eolas long ago and dumped the technology onto the W3C's lap where it belongs:

"When you think about this, having to go around the patent highlights the stupidity of the patent system. Everyone in the field is very saddened by the whole thing... The W3C has worked very hard to make the Web remain patent free and this might be the one thing that screws it all up. It's really very frustrating."

2 Comments

To play devil's advocate, what's the problem with inventing something and getting it protected?

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That's a very good and sensible question, though a bit too general with respect to the current state of software patents.

First off, to answer your question literally: there's nothing wrong with inventing something and getting it protected.

However, computer software has more in common with writing than with inventions, and therefore should be subject to copyright law but not patent law.

Software engineers are trained to re-use software as building blocks. This becomes increasingly necessary as software becomes more complex to take advantage of the faster processors, increased memory and wider variety of interconnecting devices and services becoming available.

Requiring software writers to be knowledgeable of everything that has been written prior in order to avoid areas already written is not only unreasonable, it is becoming increasingly impossible. Furthermore, the diffusion of innovation and the development of software standards are at risk when software patents are allowed. This is very much the same reason why writing is copyrighted (narrowly interpreted) and not patentable.

I urge you to read a very well written letter by Phil Salin to the US Patents and Trademarks Office back in 1991 which details his opposition of software patents on free speech grounds. It has been instrumental in shaping my attitude towards software patents within my software engineering career.

By the way, I have an idea to write a story about a boy who meets a girl, who falls in love with the girl, then loses the girl. I'm going to try to get my writing patented so as to protect my 'invention'. While you could argue that the idea has been thought of before, I'm sure you would agree that I might be able to come up with a scenario which could be unique, though also commonplace just the same. Should I be able to protect this 'invention'?

And if so, how does this form of writing differ from my figuring a scenario to write about in my favorite computer language?

Food for thought.

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