Friday, August 25, 2006

Answering the "Patent Engineer"

From Slashdot:
Disclaimer: I am a patent engineer. I write software patents for a living.

Let's think about this for a minute. There are two common arguments for doing away with software patents: 1) It's just math (i.e., algorithms), and 2) software is already covered by copyright.

Addressing 1) first, this argument could be taken to its natural conclusion by suggesting that *nothing* should be patented, since *everything* is simply a combination of laws of nature. But if we take a step back, we realize that what people are patenting is novel *uses* for laws of nature. If I'm the first person to design voice recognition software, why would that be any less patentable than a new kind of rubber? The point (theoretically, at least) is to reward hard work and innovation. Why should software engineers be any less entitled to that kind of reward?

Some will respond to the previous points with 2). BUT, and this is an important point, copyright only covers the specific implementation or manifestation of the invention. So, if I were to copyright an insanely powerful peer-to-peer model, you would only have to use a different programming language, change the system architecture a little bit, throw a different GUI on it, and away you go. You may be copying my ideas EXACTLY, but you've found a way around the copyright. So it's clear that copyright doesn't protect certain kinds of inventions to the extent that patents do.

Now, I'll be the first to acknowledge that the USPTO needs improvement. The examination process is flawed, and recent reform proposals have fallen far short of what's actually needed. But does that mean we should just do away with an entire class of patents? Of course not.

Dear anonymous patent engineer,

The patent system, much like software, is the creation of our minds. It's an artificial system of monopolies with only one purpose, to maximise the amount of innovation society produces, through appropriate protection of investment. Copyright is, of course, exactly the same, only different.

Your arguments don't address the actual question, which is much simpler than technical debate about maths, the reality of the universe, and the difference between an idea and a piece of work.

The question is simply: does the patent system stimulate programmers and SMEs to invent, or does it not. It is a question with a black and white answer. Patents are either good for software, or they are bad for it. There are no special cases: any mechanism that produces more software, more cheaply, will do so systematically across all domains.

If the answer is yes, you will find programmers and the CEOs of SMEs in their thousands invading the streets, or at least writing emails, demanding more patent protection.

But, surprisingly perhaps for someone who has graduated to the position of engineer of patents, you find yourself confronted by masses of unhappy, angry, confused programmers and SME CEOs who detest software patents with such a fury that they are willing to sacrifice their time, their money, and years of their lives, in some cases, to oppose wider patentability of software.

Software patents must be stopped, and rolled back, or the software industry will suffer and in some parts of the world, die.

There is no pity in economics - inefficient systems are punished mercilessly, and if the US persists in its mindless pursuit of universal patentability, it will simply arrive at the stage where no-one - not the software industry, not the music industry, not the movie industry - will invest in copyrightable works, because every idea and concept will be owned by a patent engineer.

At which stage the patent engineers of the world can write the content.