It's a new year, and America has a new president, which means -- if we're lucky -- we have a new opportunity to tackle the issue of software patent reform.
It's a long shot, I know. But hey, Mr. President -- I realize it's only a few days into your term and all, but if you're not too busy dealing with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, renewed conflict in Israel, fluctuating oil prices, and climate change, maybe you would be willing to look into the state of U.S. intellectual property law?
Subsidies for the airline and banking industries will cost billions, but the new administration could reinvigorate the IT industry without spending a dime. Eliminate software patents, and a yoke that has weighed down the technology sector for years will be lifted.
Software patents affect all developers, commercial vendors, and open source hobbyists alike. Patents restrict what functionality we can include in our applications, how our programs can interoperate, and how and where they can be deployed. In turn, this affects every computer user, by limiting features, raising prices, and slowing the pace of progress.
Patents were designed to encourage innovation by granting inventors limited-term monopoly control over their inventions. In the case of software patents, however, the "inventions" are often little more than concepts, algorithms, or functional processes. Patents on such basic ideas actually stifle innovation by raising roadblocks to progress.
Technically, ideas that are unoriginal or obvious cannot be patented, and yet such filings have regularly been rubberstamped by overworked patent examiners. Amazon.com's notorious "1-Click" patent is the classic example. It's exactly what it sounds like -- a patent on the ability to buy items from an e-commerce site with a single mouse click. Although it was successfully challenged in 2007, Amazon's appeals are ongoing, and the patent has nonetheless stood for a decade.
The year in software patents
In 2008, high-tech companies, including software companies, led the nation in the total number of new patents produced. IBM was at the head of the pack, as it has been for the last 16 years, while Microsoft came in fourth -- and according to the IEEE, Microsoft may have the strongest patent portfolio of all.