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Community: Junk Patents Are Huge Step Backward

Sep 08, 2004, 01:00 (6 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by David Sugar)

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[ Thanks to David Sugar for this article. ]

The question of patents and their misuse and misapplication to inappropriate fields is one that I feel is supremely important to consider for society as a whole. While much has been said on this topic by others, and in particular about the effect of patents on the practice and profession of writing software, I wish to explain why I personally find the idea of software patents particularly offensive.

Like many, some might say, virtually all of those who today call ourselves "Americans," my ancestors came here from distant lands. We all know that some came here seeking political and religious freedom, but the economic freedom and what those came here were fleeing from needs further illumination, for in Europe, and what could be referred to more correctly as "old" Europe rather than the way it is used today, or perhaps pre-revolutionary (perhaps early modern) Europe, economic freedom did not exist.

In this "old" Europe, let's say you were a tradesman, like a butcher. Perhaps you apprenticed somewhere and are a very good butcher and you wish to open your own butcher shop. It did not matter how good a butcher you were, however. Perhaps you were in a charter town, and the local guild would choose who would be permitted to be butchers. Perhaps the existing butchers who make up the guilde decide they do not like additional competition, and so they have the power to deny you the right to open such a business. Or perhaps you were under the administrative domain of a local lord, an aristocrat who represents a heriditary monopoly, and he chooses the same to bar you from practicing your chosen profession for reasons that may be completely arbitrary.

My great-grandfather had such ambitions, to better himself and use his skills and talent. Not being permitted to do so in his native land, he came to this country to open a butcher shop in New York City and use his skills and talents to make a better life for himself and his family. Opening a butcher shop may not seem like such a large ambition today, but at one time people did not have the right even to do such basic things as this, and there are still places where people lack even this kind of basic freedom. It was here, in America, where people found that they were given such freedom, along with others, and many people came here for that.

Today, a few selfish people, such as Bill Gates, and those of similar mind who wish to misuse powerful corporations and play the legal and patent system to preserve a failing business model. I read how Gates proudly proclaimed how Microsoft now files for thousands of patents per year. Often these patents are on things that are trivially obvious extensions on existing ideas, such as the Microsoft patent on double click power switches, or outright claims to existing ideas that have long been established, like the recent Microsoft patent on the operation of things like inserting "todo" lists in source code comments, using "pronouns" in programming languages, the so-called "sudo" patent (which in fact most accurately describes the operation of QNX, which dates to the 80's, and some say multics from the 60's, though I am not personally familiar with the latter), or keyboard navigation of a web page (lynx). These latest outrages in fact contrast sharply to the actions of far more honorable computer scientists, such as Dennis Ritche having Bell labs dedicate the original setuid patent.

It is very clear that those people involved in filing such patents are not doing so because they actually believe in patents or that somehow ideas should be patented, but rather simply because these people know that they can get away with filing even completely ridiculous patents even on other people's existing ideas, because the USPTO allows them to do so. Is it not funny that those who wish us to believe that we should treat their ideas as if they are property also show the least respect and greatest contempt possible for other people's ideas by filing patents on other people's work?

In filing for such patents, these selfish people can choose to use patents as an obsticle for others, and in doing so can create something like the "old" Europe my ancestors fled from. In resorting to broadly filing for patents on basic ideas and methods, on other people's work and long existing ideas, they are saying to those who wish to produce software that in the future you will have to beg for the right to write software, much like my great grandfather would have had to do if he had stayed in Krackow. Through the use of software patents, they can legally aquire the power to decide who can and cannot write software, for this is what software patents ultimately do, they reduce all others to beggers. Well shame on them.

When I think of the kind of America I believe in and wish to raise my children in, I do not think of the shameful kind of America people like Gates would wish to create when he proudly proclaims how his company files for thousands of such junk patents every year. A place where a priviledged few again choose what others are permitted to do. A place where we have to beg for the right to practice our chosen profession. Rather, I think of the kind of America my great grandfather believed in. It does not matter so much that the reality was a little less perfect even than that belief, for it should be that belief which should be our goal to better achieve today, for to do any less shames us all.

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