Hexplanation Humpday: Software Patents

Posted by Matt Farmer on March 27, 2012 · 8 mins read

Greetings one, greetings all. Yes, I am reviving the Hexplanation Humpday series here on Farmdawg Nation. For how long, we’ll see. As I’ve mentioned previously, the whole blogging regularly thing hasn’t been happening as much as I would like, but I continue to attempt to restore the habit with my latest toys. So, now that you’ve undoubtedly busted out the champagne and had a few tears of joy at the return of this historic series of blogging history, let’s get down to business.
Today’s topic, unlike those of past Hexplanation Humpdays, is much less technical in nature. Instead, I wanted to take some time today to discuss something that, quite frankly, bugs me a lot: software patents. I’ve written numerous times on lawsuits that stem from these patents, and taken many an occasion to openly mock the ludicrous nature of these software patents on Twitter. Yet, I have realized that I haven’t seen many good non-technical explanations of this topic. So, naturally, I’ve decided to try my hand at explaining it and see where I land.

Hold on to your butts.

Writing a Book

If you are a programmer, or know a programmer, then you’re probably familiar with the turn of phrase “writing a program.” If you don’t meet the criteria above, then allow me to introduce you to this particular phrase that means exactly what you would think. Someone is sitting at a keyboard hammering out words into a work of text that the computer can interpret as instructions. Not very much unlike an author might do while writing a novel.

Just as a book is composed of words that make up sentences and so on, programs work in much the same way. You bring a lot of little building blocks, insignificant in their own right, into one cohesive whole.

Like authors, software developers have long had the privilege of obtaining a copyright on a particular work to maintain and protect their intellectual property. Much like when you write some text of poetry or prose, copyright immediately attaches (although it’s difficult, if not impossible, to take legal action if you never register the work with the USPTO). This protects you from a situation where someone may copy your exact work and claim it as their own for whatever reason.

This type of protection is beneficial to the system as a whole, and does a lot of good for dealing with those one-off situations where some troll decides to steal something that doesn’t belong to them.

Give to Caesar What is Caesar’s

There are those in the industry who are not satisfied with this level of protection because it still allows others to clone behavior in your application, and so long as they didn’t outright steal your source code then they could do what they want. So, if you came up with a super-clever new idea for an algorithm then proceeded to implement that algorithm and copyright that implementation, you couldn’t stop someone from implementing an algorithm that gets the same results, or perhaps even better results, with different code.

This is, in some opinions, a problem that needed to be addressed with the use of software patents.

You see, by treating certain pieces of a program as a unique invention, the patent holder gains significantly more latitude to prevent the cloning of such behavior in other applications. Patents are much more restrictive, and lucrative to possess, than copyrights.

So, why is this so bad? Returning to our author metaphor, let’s say that Bob writes an awesome novel titled “The Awesome Novel.” This novel is going to be highly lucrative, so far as Bob can figure, and is worthy of registering for copyright. Now, Bob can prevent others from outright copying or plagiarizing his awesome novel. However, this doesn’t quite satisfy Bob. He’s got one sentence in the entire novel that he’s really proud of. So, he decides to get a patent for that sentence as a unique invention and collect royalties every time someone uses that sentence in a book for the next twenty years. Great job Bob!

While this can’t actually happen with novels, it’s the best analogy I can think of for what is happening with software right now, and it’s absolutely insane.

The Cost of Software Patents

If I were someone who was first hearing about this issue, my first reaction would probably be, “This doesn’t really sound like something that affects my day-to-day life.” The truth of the matter is that in the mobile sector, where the fiercest patents are being litigated, is probably the sector of technology that affects us most.

For example, yesterday Cult of Mac reported on Twitter filing a patent for the pull-down-to-refresh interaction that first appeared in Tweetie (which later became Twitter for Mac). Apple has long been going after Android for their use of the slide-to-unlock interaction to unlock a smartphone, which will bring changes to how Android works. Would your experience on your mobile device really be the same if these design decisions had not become as pervasive as they are today?

The myriad of legal battles going on right now because of software patents is maddening. As is the true cost of those patents. Whole companies, so called patent trolls, are sitting on a library of patents with what seems to be no apparent intention of ever implementing any of the inventions described in the patents themselves. It would seem that these trolls wish to make their dime by suing the pants off of anyone who tries to do something remotely similar to their “invention” and go home happy.

As one comment on the Tech Crunch article about this Twitter patent suggests, this behavior would have crippled innovation in the early days of the computer industry:

What would the computer industry look like now, if, during the Homebrew computer days, before the industry really knew what it was doing, everyone patented every basic new computing invention and enforced them. Everything from the cursor, to grid fixed point text, to “directory on floppy disk”. Oh, and when GUIs arrived, patents on bezeled widget borders, patents on anything that worked like a button, patents on sliders, and scroll bars, and mouse pointers, and window-resize, and start menus, and on and on. -Ray Cromwell

So, there you have it, then ten-thousand foot view of software patents. Love it, hate it, or find a mistake I made? Leave me some comment love below and let me know. Until next time, my friends.