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November 5, 2013

Filed under: tech»innovation

Patently Nonsense

Now that Apple and Microsoft (with a few others) have formed a shell company in order to sue Google over a bunch of old Nortel patents, and IBM has accused Twitter of infringing on a similar set of bogus "inventions," it's probably time again to talk about software patents in general.

Software Patents: Frequently Asked Questions

Q. When it comes to software patents...

A. No.

Q. Hang on. Are they a valid thing? Are any of these suits valid?

A. See above: no, and no.

Q. Why not?

A. Because software patents, as a description of software, are roughly like saying that I could get a patent for the automobile by writing "four tires and an engine" on a piece of paper. They're vague to the point of uselessness, and generally obvious to anyone who thinks about a problem for more than thirty seconds.

Q. Yeah, but so what? Isn't the point of patents to create innovation? Haven't we had lots of innovation in software thanks to their protection?

A. True, the point of patents is to make sure that people let other people use their inventions in exchange for licensing fees, which is supposed to incentivize innovation. In patents for physical inventions, that makes sense: I need to know how to build something if I want to use it as a part of my product, and the patent application will tell me how to do that. But software patents are not descriptive in this way: nobody could write software based on their claims, because they're written in dense legal jargon, not in code.

Let's take one of the patents in question, IBM's "Programmatic discovery of common contacts." This patent covers the case where you have two contact lists for separate people, and you'd like to find out which contacts they have in common. It describes:

  1. Having one local list of contacts,
  2. getting a second from the server,
  3. comparing them, and
  4. presenting a list of hyperlinks to the user.
That is literally the extent of detail present in this patent. Now, do you think you can build a contact matching system by licensing that patent? Or will you do what every other software company on earth has done, and invent the stupid thing yourself (a task that would take a decent coder a couple of days)?

As for the innovation argument, it's impossible to prove a negative: I can't show you that it wasn't increased by patents. But consider this: most of the companies that we think of as Internet innovators are strikingly low on patent holdings. Reportedly, Twitter owns nine, and has pledged not to sue anyone over them. Google's only applied for a few, although they have purchased many as a defensive tactic. Facebook is not known for licensing them or taking them to court (indeed, just the opposite: enter the Winklevii). For the most part, patent litigation is limited to companies who are either no longer trailblazers (Microsoft), are trying to suppress market competition (Apple), or don't invent anything at all (Intellectual Ventures). Where's the innovation here?

This American Life actually did a pair of shows on patents, strongly arguing that they've been harmful: companies have been driven out of business by patent trolls. Podcasters have been sued for the undeniably disruptive act of "putting sound files on the Internet." The costs to the industry are in the billions of dollars, and it disproportionately affects new players — exactly the kind of people that patents are meant to protect.

Q. So there's no such thing as a valid software patent?

A. That's actually a really interesting question. For example, last week I was reading The Code Book, by Simon Singh. Much of the book is taken up by the story of public key encryption, which underlies huge swathes of information technology. The standard algorithm was invented by a trio of researchers: Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Len Adleman. As RSA, the three patented their invention and successfully licensed it to software firms all over the world.

The thing about the RSA patent is that, unlike most software patents, it is non-obvious. It's extremely non-obvious, in fact, to the degree that Rivest, Shamir, and Adleman literally spent years thinking about the problem before they invented their solution, based on even more years of thinking on key exchange solutions by Whitfield Diffie, Martin Hellman, and Ralph Merkle. RSA is genuinely innovative work.

It is also work that was independently invented by the espionage community several years before (although obviously they weren't allowed to apply for patents). Moreover, a lot of the interesting parts of RSA are in the math, and math is not generally considered patentable. Nevertheless, if there's anything that would be a worthy software patent, RSA should qualify.

It goes without saying that matching contacts, or showing search ads, or scrolling a list based on touch, are not quite in the same league. And it's clear that patents are not creators of value in software. People aren't buying Windows computers or iPhones because they're patented. They're buying them because they run the software people want, or run on good-looking hardware, or any number of other reasons. In other words: software is valuable because of what it does, not because of how.

Q. So software shouldn't have any protection?

A. Sure, software should be protected. In fact, it already is. Code can be copyrighted, and you can sue people who take it and use it without your permission. But that's a different matter. Copyright says you can sue people who publish your romance novel. Software patents would be like suing anyone who writes about boy-meets-girl.

Q. Okay, fine. What's the answer?

A. Ultimately, we need patent reform. The steps for this are the same as any other reform, unfortunately: writing letters, asking your political candidates, and putting pressure on the government. It's not a sexy recommendation, but it's effective. If we could frame these as another type of frivolous lawsuit, the issue may even get some traction.

Personally, though, I'm trying to vote with my wallet. I'd like to not give money to companies that use patents offensively. Incidentally, this is why I'm cautiously optimistic for Valve's Steam Machines: it's much harder for me to not give money to Microsoft, since I play a lot of games on Windows (and XBox). A Linux box with a good game library and a not-terrible window manager would make my day.

Finally, there's a community site that can help. Ask Patents is a forum set up by the people who run the Stack Overflow help group for programmers. It takes advantage of a law that says regular people can submit "prior art" — previously-existing examples of the patented invention — that invalidate patents. Ask Patents has successfully blocked bad software patents from being granted in the first place, which means that they can't be used for infringement claims. Over time, success from finding prior art makes patents more expensive to file (because they're not automatically granted), which means fewer stupid ones will be filed and companies will need to compete in the market, not the courtroom.

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