With all the buzz in the media lately about software patents, I think it’s time to take a good look at how the software patent process needs serious reform before it further stifles creativity in the technology world. Being political isn’t something I like to do on this blog, but this topic along with the recent posts on security really need investigation and some reform with regard to how things are handled.
To draw a corollary to some recent software patent news, imagine if a record label could patent a 1-4-5 chord progression. That would pretty much lock up Blues and Rock music, to a large degree anyway, and would force songwriters, publishers and labels to forego any song using such a progression unless the 1-4-5 license was procured.
Sounds ridiculous, right? You bet it does — because it is! Think for a minute about all the good music you would have missed out on because it was price prohibitive to participate in the 1-4-5 market. Think of all the musicians, labels, music industry employees, engineers, producers, songwriters, radio DJs, venue employees, and so on, that wouldn’t exist because of the granting of a ridiculously broad patent on a concept.
Ridiculous software patents go all the way back to the cursor. For those of you not aware, Sperry Rand was actually granted a patent for the blinking cursor in 1970. This was licensed by Sperry Rand worldwide. Chances are, if you worked on a computer in the 70’s or 80’s that had a simple blinking cursor, that “technology” had to be licensed from Sperry.
Another example of a patent that has made billions of dollars for the patent holder is Amazon’s One Click checkout. While this might have been an innovation, I don’t think this was worthy of such a broad patent. Companies that may have had products to sell simply could either be priced out of competition or locked out completely if they wanted to use anything similar to one-click on their sites. Effectively, this stifled competition and creativity in the eCommerce space. This patent has been challenged repeatedly in the US and abroad, but in the meantime, Apple has licensed the technology for use in iTunes, iPhoto, and in their online store. Amazon also sued Barnes & Noble for similar technology implementation.
Google is the latest in the news with infringement suits affecting them in regards to both Android and AdWords. In fact, they will suffer losses for both unless the verdicts are overturned. With Samsung’s massive loss to Apple, in which many of the infringements were design elements, this could create a lot of trepidation around any hardware vendor working with Android. On the Adwords front, they now owe an ongoing royalty to Vringo, a company that purchased patents issued to Lycos (an old search engine).
I’m not saying all patents are bad, but certainly many are. It’s time for patent law to be rethought when it comes to software before this becomes any more ridiculous and continues to stifle competition. If it stays the way it is, most new technology firms will be singing the blues instead of innovating.