Planet Money has a very interesting article about software patents and companies who exist for the sole purpose of buying these assets and suing other companies. Computer programmers themselves don’t even like their own patents. In previous posts, I’ve made arguments for limiting patents for pharmaceuticals and the cases for software patents is even stronger. An excerpt from the article:
For a long time, the patent office would have agreed with Rick Mc Leod. For a long time, the patent office was very reluctant to grant patents for software at all.
For decades, the patent office considered software to be like language. A piece of software was more like a book or an article. You could copyright the code, but you couldn’t patent the whole idea.
In the 1990s, the Federal courts stepped in and started chipping away at this interpretation. There was a couple big decisions, one in 1994 and another in 1998, which overturned the patent office completely.
A flood of software patents followed. A lot of people in Silicon valley wish that had never happened, including a very surprising group: computer programmers.
“I worked on a whole bunch of patents in my career over the years and I have to say that every single patent is nothing but crap,” says Stephan Brunner, a programmer.
Brunner says software patents on his own work don’t even make sense to him.
I can’t tell you for the hell of it what they’re actually supposed to do. The company said we have to do a patent on this. … Personally, when I look at them, I’m not proud at all. It’s just like mungo mumbo jumbo that nobody understands and makes no sense from an engineering standpoint whatsoever.
These patents cause problems for innovative companies, particularly those in Silicon Valley.
“We’re at a point in the state of intellectual property where existing patents probably cover every behavior that’s happening on the Internet or our mobile phones today,” says Chris Sacca, the venture capitalist. “[T]he average Silicon Valley start-up or even medium sized company, no matter how truly innovative they are, I have no doubt that aspects of what they’re doing violate patents right now. And that’s what’s fundamentally broken about this system right now.”
How important are patents? Well, look how much big tech firms are paying for them.
In early July, the bankrupt tech company Nortel put its 6,000 patents up for auction as part of a liquidation. A bidding war broke out among Silicon Valley powerhouses…The portfolio eventually sold to Apple and a consortium of other tech companies including Microsoft and Ericsson. The price tag: $4.5 billion dollars….
That’s $4.5 billion on patents that these companies almost certainly don’t want for their technical secrets. That $4.5 billion won’t build anything new, won’t bring new products to the shelves, won’t open up new factories that can hire people who need jobs. That’s $4.5 billion dollars that adds to the price of every product these companies sell you. That’s $4.5 billion dollars buying arms for an ongoing patent war.