The Economist on patents

Posted 11 Apr 2000 at 23:39 UTC by advogato Share This

The Economist has two recent articles on the US patent system and its problems. One, titled Patent wars, describes the increasing business importance of having a patent portfolio and the rapidly growing rate of patent applications and grants. The other, titled Patent nonsense, talks about a few of the more well-known bad software patents, and ends on a note of warning suggesting that the system should be reformed. Both pieces ran in the Apr 8-14 issue of The Economist.

Another curious fact exposed by the articles is that Amazon has a relatively new patent on referral click-throughs, issued Feb 22 of this year.

My guess is that, by the time the dust settles, nearly everything interesting to do on the Internet will be patented by someone or another. You won't be able to swing a cat without running into infringing a patent.

It's not at all clear to Advogato what's the best thing to do about the patent mess. In the meantime, I think, staying informed and tracking the important patents seems like a good thing. And you can't beat David Turner's approach - simply create something new that gets around existing patents. That's also a large part of the motivation behind the xiph.org projects.


Open Source Patents, posted 12 Apr 2000 at 06:23 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

Possible Solution Whilst Still Working Within The System: default class license granted is an Open Source License. this of course assumes that you have the cash to obtain the patent in the first place. There is no incentive to do this.

you have to experience it..., posted 12 Apr 2000 at 06:53 UTC by mbp » (Master)

(Hi lkcl!)

There is nothing like encountering a software patent in one's own project to give one a visceral disgust for the whole system. I would explain the problem domain to people, and have them say ``ah, that's easy, you just need to do X''. But sadly I'd already thought of that, and it was outlawed because there was an incredibly broad patent already covering the idea.

My personal favourite ridiculous patent is this, by Unisys.

We are heading down the Road to Tycho.

Raph's patents?, posted 12 Apr 2000 at 13:41 UTC by andrei » (Master)

Doesn't Raph have some of his own patents? I'm just wondering where how he reconciles this with the raised issues.

Advogato topic meta-memory, posted 12 Apr 2000 at 21:57 UTC by Acapnotic » (Master)

If you signed on recently, you may want to investigate Advogato's previous patent discussions before re-starting the discussion again.

Consistent? I'm under no onus to be consistent!, posted 13 Apr 2000 at 00:08 UTC by raph » (Master)

Seriously, I think the issue here is largely one of good patents vs. bad patents. I personally think the idea of patents is a pretty good one, and, if implemented reasonably well, would be a nice tool to compensate inventors for their work.

Of course, as we all know, the current situation at the US Patent and Trademark Office is royally screwed up. Thousands upon thousands of overly broad, trivial, or already-invented patents issue every year. The cost of playing the patent game puts it well past the means of many small inventors, while at the same time patents are becoming so important for business that it's almost a breach of fiduciary responsibility for big companies not to participate.

What, in my opinion, differentiates a good patent from bad?

There is work involved

So many of the bad patents are for just the idea of doing something. I think a good patent should reflect actual research and implementation work. The result of sitting around bullshitting new ideas should not be patentable.

There is cleverness involved

Even if the implementation takes work, a straightforward implementation shouldn't be patentable.

It is not overly broad

Some patents are issued with relatively narrow claims that protect the specific invention at hand. Others have broad claims that effectively prevent anyone else implementing the same idea in a different way. Most of the responsibility for the overly broad patents lies with the patent office - if you're going to go to the trouble and expense to get a patent, naturally you're going to want the broadest claims you can get.

Note that these criteria aren't all that different than the stated USPTO guidelines, which call for new patents to be novel, unobvious (to "one skilled in the art"), and useful. To these criteria, I'd add another that has less to do with the patent itself than the context it's used in:

Patented technology doesn't belong in standards

Any new standard that requires patented technology to implement should be subjected to intense scrutiny. A patent-free alternative, if available, is almost always preferable. Much of the trouble that patents have caused for free software have to do with their inclusion in standards. Just think GIF, MP3, RSA, etc.

Lastly, I'm in the process of granting rights to use all my patents in GPL software. It's time-consuming and costly to do something like this right, so it's not going as fast as I'd like. But they will get there.

Raph comes through, posted 13 Apr 2000 at 04:04 UTC by andrei » (Master)

I'd like to thank Raph for the well-thought out reply to my original inquiry. I too believe that there is a place for patents, but they should definitely conform to the standards that Raph described. None of this "HTML tag embedding for server-side scripting" bullshit.

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