The Null Device

Paul Graham on software patents

Paul Graham (of "Hackers and Painters" fame) looks at the issue of software patents. His view is that software patents are not inherently more evil than any other kind of patent; in the computerised world we live in, "software patent" is rapidly becoming the default kind, like "electric guitar" or "digital camera"; as such, opposition to software patents would effectively involve opposition to all patents but certain faintly archaic categories. Having said that, there are issues that need to be addressed:
Applying for a patent is a negotiation. You generally apply for a broader patent than you think you'll be granted, and the examiners reply by throwing out some of your claims and granting others. So I don't really blame Amazon for applying for the one-click patent. The big mistake was the patent office's, for not insisting on something narrower, with real technical content. By granting such an over-broad patent, the USPTO in effect slept with Amazon on the first date. Was Amazon supposed to say no?
Where Amazon went over to the dark side was not in applying for the patent, but in enforcing it. A lot of companies (Microsoft, for example) have been granted large numbers of preposterously over-broad patents, but they keep them mainly for defensive purposes. Like nuclear weapons, the main role of big companies' patent portfolios is to threaten anyone who attacks them with a counter-suit. Amazon's suit against Barnes & Noble was thus the equivalent of a nuclear first strike.
And on the question of "are (software) patents evil":
Google clearly doesn't feel that merely holding patents is evil. They've applied for a lot of them. Are they hypocrites? Are patents evil? There are really two variants of that question, and people answering it often aren't clear in their own minds which they're answering. There's a narrow variant: is it bad, given the current legal system, to apply for patents? and also a broader one: it is bad that the current legal system allows patents?
These are separate questions. For example, in preindustrial societies like medieval Europe, when someone attacked you, you didn't call the police. There were no police. When attacked, you were supposed to fight back, and there were conventions about how to do it. Was this wrong? That's two questions: was it wrong to take justice into your own hands, and was it wrong that you had to? We tend to say yes to the second, but no to the first.
Patents, like police, are involved in many abuses. But in both cases the default is something worse. The choice is not "patents or freedom?" any more than it is "police or freedom?" The actual questions are respectively "patents or secrecy?" and "police or gangs?"

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