In Defense of Software Patents

by R.R.Tucci (Feb. 8, 2006)

I think the most important reason for awarding patent rights is because it is just and fair to do so. Inventors deserve to be rewarded for their hard work. Otherwise, the CEOs and investors of companies will reap all the monetary rewards for an invention, and the inventor will get absolutely nothing.

Patents that claim obvious things are often given as proof that patent rights are unfair and should be abolished. It's a non-sequitur argument. Patent law explicitly disallows patenting of obvious things, and it permits a court to invalidate a patent that it finds obvious. Just because a patent gets past the Patent Office (an admittedly coarse filter that could be improved), doesn't guarantee that the patent is any good. Patent holders of obvious patents are unlikely to sue infringers; suing for patent infringement is expensive, and, in the case of an obvious patent, doomed to fail. And if the holder of an obvious patent is foolish enough to sue you, you can ask the court to invalidate his patent for being obvious. Different people will disagree on what they consider obvious. What could be fairer than to ask a jury to decide if something is obvious or not?

Patents benefit not just the inventor, but society as a whole, by increasing the rate at which new inventions are produced. They do this in at least two ways. (1) By rewarding inventors financially, you are giving them a few years of financial security that they will use to produce new inventions. Without this financial security, they might not be able to continue their work. (2) Patenting leads to full disclosure of inventions that might otherwise remain trade secrets. When patenting is allowed, inventors learn about prior inventions sooner than they would otherwise. This leads them to make their inventions, based on prior ones, sooner. In the past, before patent laws existed, trade secrets were often a serious impediment to technological progress. For example, in medieval times, Venetian glassblowers were forbidden to leave the city, and,  if they did, assassins were hired to hunt them down lest they divulge any trade secrets.

Patents also benefit society by creating new jobs and even entire industries. They attract venture capitalists to small companies that hold them. Without patents, investors are reluctant to take a risk on such small fry. A good example of this is Google, Inc. Google was incorporated on Sep. 7 of 1998 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin while they were still students at Stanford. One of the first things Larry and Sergey did in order to start their company was to file for a patent for their page ranking algorithm. (U.S. Patent 6,285,999, filed on Jan 9, 1998, granted on Sept 4, 2001, with assignee =Stanford and inventor=Laurence Page). Would investors have taken a risk on two college students had these students not filed for a patent? Highly doubtful. Without the page ranking patent, powerful companies like Microsoft and Yahoo would have killed Google in its infancy---a huge loss for the US economy and for society in general.

Of course, patents have some disadvantages too. They can lead to litigation. But litigation is often averted through negotiation. The possibility of litigation is a necessary price one must pay in order to have justice. Another disadvantage of patents is that patent holders will sometimes abuse their privileges. For instance, millions of people have died needlessly because they could not afford to buy pricey, patented HIV/AIDS medicines. In cases such as this, I believe the government should intercede to reduce the rights of a patent holder. Such special government intervention is justified whenever a patent holder is wielding his patent rights in a way that jeopardizes people's lives.

I see no philosophical difference between a software patent and a patent for a new kind of toaster. Those who try to make a philosophical distinction between the two, run into all types of logical contradictions, like those who try to argue that time travel is possible. To say that by permitting software patents, one is allowing the patenting of a pure idea, an algorithm, is non-sense. What is being patented is a computer that is running an algorithm.You can read the code, and study it without infringing. It's when you start running the code on a computer to get useful outputs that you are infringing.

I think that those who reject software patents are forced by logic to reject any kind of patent. They are lazy, selfish people, acting in their own self interest. They want to be able to take and use someone else's hard-earned property without having to pay anything. Such a system of property management is called Communism, and it has been shown not to work. It's hilarious that such people often take the moral high-ground, and portray patent holders as evil. They are the ones that are evil, thuggish communists, oink, oink, like the pig Napoleon in Animal Farm.

I am not against GPL software. I love it. I am a daily beneficiary of LATEX. But just because Donald Knuth decided to donate his software to the public, doesn't mean that everyone should be forced to do so. Only Communists believe in banning private ownership of all means of production  (like software). What folly! What tyranny! As for me, I believe in controlled Capitalism. Unlike Communism, Capitalism acknowledges the fact that human beings are inherently self-interested (and, yes, greedy), and it tries to harness this fact for the good of society.

The US allows patenting of software, and has, by far, the strongest software industry in the world. (Europe, which does not allow patenting of software, has a much weaker software industry.) So allowing software patents does not seem to be hurting American competitiveness; in fact, the opposite seems to be the case.

Those who say that software patents only benefit large corporations like IBM or Microsoft are wrong. For example, software patents, like other types of patents, benefit small companies by making them more attractive to venture capitalists.

Sure, I believe the US Patent Office could be improved. But acknowledging room for improvement is quite different from advocating that all patents, or even only software patents, be abolished.