Are Software Patents Evil?
January 30, 2007 10:20am CST
Are Software Patents Evil? (This essay is derived from a talk at Google.) A few weeks ago I found to my surprise that I'd been granted four patents. This was all the more surprising because I'd only applied for three. The patents aren't mine, of course. They were assigned to Viaweb, and became Yahoo's when they bought us. But the news set me thinking about the question of software patents generally. Patents are a hard problem. I've had to advise most of the startups we've funded about them, and despite years of experience I'm still not always sure I'm giving the right advice. One thing I do feel pretty certain of is that if you're against software patents, you're against patents in general. Gradually our machines consist more and more of software. Things that used to be done with levers and cams and gears are now done with loops and trees and closures. There's nothing special about physical embodiments of control systems that should make them patentable, and the software equivalent not. Unfortunately, patent law is inconsistent on this point. Patent law in most countries says that algorithms aren't patentable. This rule is left over from a time when "algorithm" meant something like the Sieve of Eratosthenes. In 1800, people could not see as readily as we can that a great many patents on mechanical objects were really patents on the algorithms they embodied. Patent lawyers still have to pretend that's what they're doing when they patent algorithms. You must not use the word "algorithm" in the title of a patent application, just as you must not use the word "essays" in the title of a book. If you want to patent an algorithm, you have to frame it as a computer system executing that algorithm. Then it's mechanical; phew. The default euphemism for algorithm is "system and method." Try a patent search for that phrase and see how many results you get. Since software patents are no different from hardware patents, people who say "software patents are evil" are saying simply "patents are evil." So why do so many people complain about software patents specifically?I think the problem is more with the patent office than the concept of software patents. Whenever software meets government, bad things happen, because software changes fast and government changes slow. The patent office has been overwhelmed by both the volume and the novelty of applications for software patents, and as a result they've made a lot of mistakes. The most common is to grant patents that shouldn't be granted. To be patentable, an invention has to be more than new. It also has to be non-obvious. And this, especially, is where the USPTO has been dropping the ball. Slashdot has an icon that expresses the problem vividly: a knife and fork with the words "patent pending" superimposed. The scary thing is, this is the only icon they have for patent stories. Slashdot readers now take it for granted that a story about a patent will be about a bogus patent. That's how bad the problem has become. The problem with Amazon's notorious one-click patent, for example, is not that it's a software patent, but that it's obvious. Any online store that kept people's shipping addresses would have implemented this. The reason Amazon did it first was not that they were especially smart, but because they were one of the earliest sites with enough clout to force customers to log in before they could buy something.We, as hackers, know the USPTO is letting people patent the knives and forks of our world. The problem is, the USPTO are not hackers. They're probably good at judging new inventions for casting steel or grinding lenses, but they don't understand software yet. At this point an optimist would be tempted to add "but they will eventually." Unfortunately that might not be true. The problem with software patents is an instance of a more general one: the patent office takes a while to understand new technology. If so, this problem will only get worse, because the rate of technological change seems to be increasing. In thirty years, the patent office may understand the sort of things we now patent as software, but there will be other new types of inventions they understand even less. 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. That suit probably hurt Amazon more than it helped them. Barnes & Noble was a lame site; Amazon would have crushed them anyway. To attack a rival they could have ignored, Amazon put a lasting black mark on their own reputation. Even now I think if you asked hackers to free-associate about Amazon, the one-click patent would turn up in the first ten topics. 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. If no one else will defend you, you have to defend yourself.The situation with patents is similar. Business is a kind of ritualized warfare. Indeed, it evolved from actual warfare: most early traders switched on the fly from merchants to pirates depending on how strong you seemed. In business there are certain rules describing how companies may and may not compete with one another, and someone deciding that they're going to play by their own rules is missing the point. Saying "I'm not going to apply for patents just because everyone else does" is not like saying "I'm not going to lie just because everyone else does." It's more like saying "I'm not going to use TCP/IP just because everyone else does." Oh yes you are. A closer comparison might be someone seeing a hockey game for the first time, realizing with shock that the players were deliberately bumping into one another, and deciding that one would on no account be so rude when playing hockey oneself. Hockey allows checking. It's part of the game. If your team refuses to do it, you simply lose. So it is in business. Under the present rules, patents are part of the game. What does that mean in practice? We tell the startups we fund not to worry about infringing patents, because startups rarely get sued for patent infringement. There are only two reasons someone might sue you: for money, or to prevent you from competing with them. Startups are too poor to be worth suing for money. And in practice they don't seem to get sued much by competitors, either. They don't get sued by other startups because (a) patent suits are an expensive distraction, and (b) since the other startups are as young as they are, their patents probably haven't issued yet. Nor do startups, at least in the software business, seem to get sued much by established competitors. Despite all the patents Microsoft holds, I don't know of an instance where they sued a startup for patent infringement. Companies like Microsoft and Oracle don't win by winning lawsuits. That's too uncertain. They win by locking competitors out of their sales channels. If you do manage to threaten them, they're more likely to buy you than sue you. When you read of big companies filing patent suits against smaller ones, it's usually a big company on the way down, grasping at straws. For example, Unisys's attempts to enforce their patent on LZW compression. When you see a big company threatening patent suits, sell. When a company starts fighting over IP, it's a sign they've lost the real battle, for users. A company that sues competitors for patent infringement is like a defender who has been beaten so thoroughly that he turns to plead with the referee. You don't do that if you can still reach the ball, even if you genuinely believe you've been fouled. So a company threatening patent suits is a company in trouble. When we were working on Viaweb, a bigger company in the e-commerce business was granted a patent on online ordering, or something like that. I got a call from a VP there asking if we'd like to license it. I replied that I thought the patent was completely bogus, and would never hold up in court. "Ok," he replied. "So, are you guys hiring?"If your startup grows big enough, however, you'll start to get sued, no matter what you do. If you go public, for example, you'll be sued by multiple patent trolls who hope you'll pay them off to go away. More on them later. In other words, no one will sue you for patent infringement till you have money, and once you have money, people will sue you