Business & Technology Nexus

Dave Stephens on technology and business trends

Software Patent Pirates

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Software copyrights make sense to me. Copyrights ensure software isn't copied. It's that simple. And copyrights can remain in effect for up to 90 years.

So who needs a patent? It turns out in the US maybe all software vendors do. You'll see big companies like Oracle stocking up on overly broad patents & assuming an "aggressive defensive posture". Their strategy is not first strike, but instead to counterattack. Once assaulted they will dessimate the enemy with counter-claims.

I'm a much bigger fan of the EU than the US when it comes to patent law. You see, in the US, patents are regularly approved for "obvious" and "commonplace" ideas with respect to software. So as these commonplace but now (ridiculously) patented methods build up like plaque in the arteries of a middle-aged and overweight America, building good product has become partly an engineering exercise and partly a "tiptoe through the minefields" exercise. (And the US is headed for a heart attack!)

Think software patents make sense? Read this. It's yet another classic. There are countless others just as bad or worse. And here's more discussion.
Currently in the US there are around 16,000 software patents applications (or "Computer Implemented Inventions") filed each year. It's a disturbing number. But more disturbing still are the decisions.

It's hard to explain, because the software world doesn't translate well to the physical world. So here's my best shot for a software patent application that would receive sure-fire approval: a "car that can travel to HomeDepot, accommodate lumber, and return to a house with fuel efficiency greater than 20 miles to the gallon." Sure, no car has ever been expressely designed for that purpose (because that would be stupid). But once approved, and trust me it will be, every car that does the trip can have the fun experience of a lawsuit from the lucky lottery winner of the awfully broken US system.

In fact, a cottage industry has sprung to life from the comical US system. Firms collect patents with no true intention of using the defense they provide to build a sustainable business that benefits consumers.

I like to think of these firms as "software patent pirates" – Bought or submitted patents are stored in their corporate "holds" like hidden weapons. These firms troll the high seas of business in search of easy prey. Of course, my analogy is strained at best since their tactics, while disgusting, are quite legal.

Perhaps the poor US system will one day be fixed. Or perhaps it will unravel based on its unsound foundation. But until then, software vendors should beware "software patent pirates" a whole lot more than copyright piracy.

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Written by Dave Stephens

06/18/06 9:35 PM at 9:35 pm

Posted in Opinion

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