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Reverse the creep towards software patents, idea patents and file format patents

Comment 12th June 2018

Ensure that software, business ideas and file formats are never patentable.

Why does this matter?

Remember the old days? There was plenty of competition in the software market.

If someone uses a word processor then their data becomes locked up in the files it produces. It becomes expensive to move to a competing word processor unless that software can read the files. The same applies for any other data such a a music collection.

Recently file formats, as well as other software ideas, have become patantable. For example Microsoft can boast all they like about how "open" their new format is, but the main advantage to Microsoft is that even with Cheap MS Office they can protect the format by patent and control who implements software that can access it. In other words they can limit competition and tie users into using their software to access their growing history of data.

Do we need these patents? Do we need patents that cover basic software ideas or even business ideas? Software is covered by copyright. You don't need a patent to stop someone just copying your program. As first inventer you have the advantages of being first to market. It takes time for people to make clones, during which you can continue to develop your product and keep ahead of the game.

  • Bill Gates said recently that if the current software patent environment had existed in the 90s there would be no Micorosoft. Software patents effectively prevent newcomers and new innovation entering the market. Microsoft were small once.
  • Before Mozilla came along, Internet Explorer stagnated. We are lucky that the Internet standards were developed without patent, and hope in spite of efforts from the industry that it will stay that way. If a company is guaranteed no competion by law, then they have no need to invest in their product., even if the product fails to meet requirements.
  • Today's connected world in which we have to communicate is vulnerable to the effect of software patents and closed formats. Imagine if the web or email was so protected and there can be only one browser, only one mail client, no Google Mail, no Firefox.
  • Almost no software process is possible without infringing patents. Patents exist for the most trivial and basic things that programmers do every day. I've seen patents granted in the 90s that cover techniques I read about in my computer text books in the 80s.
  • The cost of defending a patent suit is prohibitive. Even a facile patent suit can cripple a startup company. Software patents end up a form of nuclear deterrent for the big companies.

Software patents only harm competion and hinder innovation. They were not needed at the hayday of computer development when arguably the most innovation happened. They are not needed now.

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