Are Software Patents Evil?

In: Computers and Technology

Submitted By salam
Words 4445
Pages 18
A few weeks ago I found to my surprise that I'd been granted four patents. This was all the more surprising because I'd only applied for three. The patents aren't mine, of course. They were assigned to Viaweb, and became Yahoo's when they bought us. But the news set me thinking about the question of software patents generally.

Patents are a hard problem. I've had to advise most of the startups we've funded about them, and despite years of experience I'm still not always sure I'm giving the right advice.

One thing I do feel pretty certain of is that if you're against software patents, you're against patents in general. Gradually our machines consist more and more of software. Things that used to be done with levers and cams and gears are now done with loops and trees and closures. There's nothing special about physical embodiments of control systems that should make them patentable, and the software equivalent not.

Unfortunately, patent law is inconsistent on this point. Patent law in most countries says that algorithms aren't patentable. This rule is left over from a time when "algorithm" meant something like the Sieve of Eratosthenes. In 1800, people could not see as readily as we can that a great many patents on mechanical objects were really patents on the algorithms they embodied.

Patent lawyers still have to pretend that's what they're doing when they patent algorithms. You must not use the word "algorithm" in the title of a patent application, just as you must not use the word "essays" in the title of a book. If you want to patent an algorithm, you have to frame it as a computer system executing that algorithm. Then it's mechanical; phew. The default euphemism for algorithm is "system and method." Try a patent search for that phrase and see how many results you get.

Since software patents are no different from hardware patents, people who say…...

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