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Community: Junk Patents Are Huge Step Backward

[ 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.