Recently I’ve seen a lot of negative press around the whole patents concept. Slashdotters, for example, go crazy whenever someone throws them a bone of an example like “One click shopping”. Imagine if someone actually read through the several thousand patents filed each year by tech heavyweights like IBM or Microsoft. I can’t even fathom the breadth of patents large corporations must cover each year. This blog must be patented in there somewhere. An article in Wired predicts that patents could be the downfall of the American tech industry.
I’ll admit there are probably a bunch of patents that were reviewed by people skilled at the art of the rubber stamp, but that should not diminish the spirit of the concept. Creativity, especially around software, needs to be rewarded if we are to move into the next phase of the digital revolution. The actual development of software itself, much like the American industries of old, is something that can now be done much cheaper outside of the US. The whole concept of high level languages and developer tools in general is to make the software writing a process more simple manufacturing and less creative. No need for all the high priced labor here in the US to do that.
So if you can’t make money here in the US doing the actual development of software the movement must be towards development of ideas that can be implemented in software. Isn’t that the fun part anyway, in perfecting your concepts and the intricacies of your grand design? As an example from my own world as a software design engineer in testing I’ve always enjoyed developing the creative ideas around how to test the particular piece of software rather than the actual software testing itself. Continuously writing tons of similar scripted tests is also not enjoyed by all just because it involves some if statements. I’d argue that the higher art of designing a system that does the testing faster, with less input, and less boring scripting is more fun, creative, and thus should be more rewarding in the end.
Back to the patent concept. It’s cliché, but guns don’t kill people, people kill people. The good or evil of a patent is not in the patent itself, but rather the application of the patent. For example: Amazon could have received the patent for the One Click Shopping, but then opened the concept for anyone to use while still holding the patent. Conversely the patent would allow them to beat anyone with a government stick, keep their invention to themselves, and not allow for a level competitive playing field. On the middle ground they could license the concept out for a fair price to other online retailers in order to both share and be rewarded for their invention. (For the sake of argument I’ll assume they actually did invent it.)
Patents also don’t prohibit innovation they are simply recognition of singular innovations. Giving someone a patent for hosting applications in a web browser, for example, does not mean that you can’t go out and create something better than a lame web browser for people’s shopping and information retrieval needs if the patent holder restricts you from using their system. From what I can see, most of you are reading this through an RSS aggregator. It’s a better solution. So go out, be creative, file for legitimate (yes, the government should stop rubber stamping everything for this to work) patents when applicable, and get rewarded for your creativity while still promoting innovations. Just don’t beat people with sticks when they don’t deserve it