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Question: Should we be allowed to patent software...

Question: Should we be allowed to patent software...

Question: Should we be allowed to patent software...

(OP)
Despite my working for a software company (or at least the software division of a large and diversified manufacturing company) this is one of my pet peeves, the patenting of software:

http://www.vox.com/2014/6/20/5824426/the-supreme-c...

Now don't get me wrong, we patent our fair share of software ourselves but mostly out of selfdefense, but when I was in engineering school the only things that people ever talked about applying patents for were real, honest-to-goodness things, AKA devices or machines (note that I'm a co-inventor on two US patents for machinery used in the commercial baking industry, #3,877,592 and #4,132,320).

One of the long running advocates for disallowing the patenting of software is Professor Marvin Minsky of MIT. I was attending a conference in 2001 where I heard Prof. Minsky speak on this and other topics and later that evening I had the honor of having dinner with him and we talked extensively on this topic and it was then that I became a believer in this notion, that it was a fundamental mistake to issue patents for software alone. Now there are exceptions to this, such as when software in an integral as part of a device, and serves only one purpose, making that device work, then that's different as long as it's understood that the primary motivation for the patent was the device itself. The software was only included in the patent because without it, the device would serve no purpose.

Note that this topic had been kicked around for many years as seen here:

http://www.drdobbs.com/software-patents/184408443

Anyway, the article above (the VOX item published today) got me thinking about this issue again and I thought it might interesting to hear other people opinions. Granted, this topic, or at least in the context in which I'm offering it, focuses only on the writing and patenting of software, it still would be interesting to see what others have to say. After all, I moved from the world of machines to the world of software and I brought my views and prejudices with me, so what do you all think?

John R. Baker, P.E.
Product 'Evangelist'
Product Engineering Software
Siemens PLM Software Inc.
Industry Sector
Cypress, CA
Siemens PLM:
UG/NX Museum:

To an Engineer, the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.

RE: Question: Should we be allowed to patent software...

John,
I knew that sooner or later there had to be an issue we agreed on.

I used to work for Amoco and spent a lot of time at our Research Center in the 1980's. They were doing some really cutting edge work in software at that time (e.g., there was not a commercial e-mail system so they wrote one that was sold to IBM as "PROFS" and became a precursor to Outlook, they needed to get data from databases all over the world so they wrote a rudimentary version of the cloud in the 1980's). They were awarded hundreds of patents for software. I had occasion to spend some time with one of our patent attorneys (he was working on a patent on one of my gadgets) and asked him why we patented software and his answer was that without patent protection someone else could patent similar code and prevent Amoco from using our creation. He was an advocate for getting that protection from copyright, but apparently the copyright law is too lax to do what he needed. I've thought about that conversation a lot over the years and it seems that there must be other ways to do this and that the patent process is among the worst, but I never came up with a better way.

David Simpson, PE
MuleShoe Engineering

Law is the common force organized to act as an obstacle of injustice Frédéric Bastiat

RE: Question: Should we be allowed to patent software...

Software patents are an abomination.

I wrote software, mostly for development/ internal use, for most of ten years. ... which I learned to do by studying old software. ... a lot of it.

In software, there really hasn't been anything unique enough to justify a patent, by the standards applied to hardware, since about 1960.

Mike Halloran
Pembroke Pines, FL, USA

RE: Question: Should we be allowed to patent software...

Quote (Lawrence Lessig)

Americans have been selling this view around the world: that progress comes from perfect protection of intellectual property. Notwithstanding the fact that the most innovative and progressive space we've seen — the Internet — has been the place where intellectual property has been least respected. You know, facts don't get in the way of this ideology.

This is a much deeper and more profound issue than I think many realize. This isn’t just about IP between corporations; the issue bleeds into the core of (current) culture. Overzealous copy right laws/regulations don’t just stifle creativity in a technological sense but they act to suppress and limit the flourishing of the culture and expression of the next generation. Many good thinkers on this subject these days, Lawrence Lessig is one. A condensed version of this argument (TED talk) can be found here.

Thanks for bringing it up John and I think you touched on a very key point: these 19th century laws were established around devices and machines and have almost no applicability to software/digital content in the 21st century. Combine that with the fact that out-of-date and out-of-touch law makers have no concept of how software and other digital content is produced, shared and consumed and that corporations/lobbyists can exploit this ignorance (especially thanks to out-of-control campaign contributions) for personal gain at the expense of public benefit, and you have a pretty scary situation.

Whether it’s SOPA or the Apple-Samsung nonsense, this issue is very real and very important. It threatens technological development, creativity and ingenuity and, most importantly, the cultural expression of our this and the coming generations.

RE: Question: Should we be allowed to patent software...

Given the name of this forum, my hope would be that another five years will be enough for the idea to die. The last ten or so have been bad enough already.

What can be patented using exising laws (created for use in other areas) are only really new/novel techniques, approaches and ideas in software, which are (in my painful experience) utterly impossible to explain to a patent lawyer. I have been asked to explain cool stuff that Ive created and watched the lawyers zone out until they hear and scribble down buzz-words that they like and totally miss any point I've tried to put across. Then the prior art research picks up the same buzz words written by other lawyers trying to describe totally different things for their clients.

- Steve

RE: Question: Should we be allowed to patent software...

(OP)
While this is not software, it does illustrate how patent offices are sometimes lax in actually looking at what's being patented (I have to thank drawoh who first posted this story in 'Pat's Pub' which led to me finding the actual patent document):

It appears that in 2001 an Australian by the name of John Keogh filed for and was granted a patent by the Australian Patent Office for inventing the 'Wheel', or as he described it, "A Circular Transportation Facilitation Device". He included a sketch showing what looked like your typical 'wagon wheel' and on that basis, the patent was issued. Note that he later announced that he had done this only to demonstrate how lax patent offices had gotten (at least in Australia) and once his story became public, the Australian Patent Office quietly revoked his 'patent', but yet the document is still posted on their website (make sure you scroll down to the end where you can see his sketches):

http://pericles.ipaustralia.gov.au/ols/auspat/pdfS...

John R. Baker, P.E.
Product 'Evangelist'
Product Engineering Software
Siemens PLM Software Inc.
Industry Sector
Cypress, CA
Siemens PLM:
UG/NX Museum:

To an Engineer, the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.

RE: Question: Should we be allowed to patent software...

(OP)
A bit on the lighter side, but still showing how the patent/copyright/trademark laws can be abused:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/18/absurd-pa...

John R. Baker, P.E.
Product 'Evangelist'
Product Engineering Software
Siemens PLM Software Inc.
Industry Sector
Cypress, CA
Siemens PLM:
UG/NX Museum:

To an Engineer, the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.

RE: Question: Should we be allowed to patent software...

JohnRBaker,

My personal favourite trademark troll is the guy who registered the URL www.crappytire.com. Canadian Tire sued him to take control of it. A quick Google search seems to show that they lost the lawsuit.

--
JHG

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