[OT] Re: Geoworks and their patent

David Megginson david at megginson.com
Tue Jan 25 14:26:03 GMT 2000

Lee Anne Phillips <leeanne at leeanne.com> writes:

> I strongly object to the whole idea of patenting software, which
> uses the legal fiction of a metaphorical machine to get around the
> fact that they're really patenting ideas and algorithms in thin
> disguise. The LZW "method" is an algorithm, not a machine, and
> should be no more patentable than the binomial theorem, which could
> just as easily have been swathed in a cloak of "machine" frosting
> and sold to the highest bidder if our acquiescent patent office had
> been around to cozy up to at the time. Feh!

Or, to put it differently, patenting generic software algorithms is
like patenting move plots or business strategies.  The good news is
that most technologically-advanced countries in the world agree, and
do not allow software patents; the bad news is that the U.S. doesn't
agree, and worse, its patent office has proven itself technically
inept for the patents it does grant.

Ironically, it's the U.S. tech industry that would benefit the most
from getting rid of software patents, since the U.S. is better than
anyone else in the world at producing small, competitive start-ups
(despite software patents, decency laws, export restrictions, and
other silly barriers raised by their government).

> The way to get rich off ideas is to have more of them and better
> ones, not throw up moribund fossil thoughts as a barrier to further
> innovation. IBM has one of the largest patent libraries in the
> world, which surely accounts for the fact that they're not exactly
> at the forefront of software development today. Having too many
> patents laying about is like hardening of the arteries; it will kill
> you sooner or later.

There are many good cases for patents.  When the cost of development
is high, and the development period is long, as is the case for
prescription drugs, some sort of limited patent protection is
necessary to ensure research and innovation.  On the other hand,
developing software algorithms is relatively cheap and fast (oops!  I
just thought of another one), so it's very hard to argue that granting
people a ten-year monopoly on them is in any way in the public

All the best,


David Megginson                 david at megginson.com

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