Wednesday, August 8, 2007

...And patents for all*

I read an article which claims that "Software patents help heighten the standard by supporting the re-use of the code of established and tested systems" the theory behind this idea is very nice - if you give people patents, then they can afford (by selling the patented software) to build higher quality software and thus be able to provide the market with a high quality less error prone product. to me this article represents a deep misunderstanding of the software world. patents are granted for 20 years while software is outdated in 2-5 years at most (and 5 years is REALLY stretching it) things change quickly in the software world and that is the reason people code quickly and are forced to build and rebuild things. sure, some software still contains very old code, some systems are continuously developed over long periods of time. but every now and then you have to rewrite things. knowledge has progressed. the tools, languages , operating systems , design patterns and coding methods change over time. when enough time has passed your code becomes so outdated and inefficient that you're just better off starting from scratch. this doesn't mean you haven't learned anything - you gathered alot of knowledge on the way the software should function and look, and writing the system again is usually faster than writing it the first time. the added benefit of the world around you progressing usually results in new and faster more reliable ways of doing things. patents don't help improve the quality of software, they prevent people from using good ideas that were patented. you can easily write software today using advanced languages and support from the OS , that would have taken you months to write just 10 years ago. and the software you end up with will be more reliable , better looking and support more functionality that it would have 10 years ago. but to do that you must use new methods, languages and tools.

I was recently entertaining the idea of starting up a software company. its not very hard coming up with interesting ideas that can make alot of money. its also possible to get funding if you have a serious business plan and a good team. the problem is that if anyone is thinking of something similar to the thing you wanted to do, odds are they have patents in the field. this means that even if you are more capable then whoever else is doing approximately the same thing, you still won't be getting any money from investors - and for good reason , you might find out that you cant market your product because you might be sued for patent infringement. this goes against the very ideology behind a patent - if the idea is so innovative , how come so many people came up with it again and again? of course, you could say that with no patents to begin with, someone would just copy your idea. well, if your idea is easy to duplicate and trivial to come up with - i guess its not patent worthy to begin with. i know its pretty hard to give a general definition of what is a trivial idea, its also hard to agree on what idea is trivial and what idea is innovative. the thing is , you know it when you see it. if you know something about a certain field , you can say if something is truly innovative or just something a lot of other people can (and will) come up with (or may have already thought of). the one-click buy is such an example. the idea is so trivial i would have never in a million years thought it's possible to patent. amazon where issued their patent in sept 1999. they sued B&N by October. i don't know when B&N added the feature to their website, but i think no one can seriously claim they started work in September - when they saw the patent approval - and were done and launched the feature by October. it was probably in the works long before that, which only helps to demonstrate how obvious the idea is. really, this sort of thing should probably be grounds for revoking the patent rights. but then again - it should never have been issued in the first place.

* well, maybe not *all* - all , more like "if you have the money and are the first to ask for them" kind of all.

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