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Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Time To Abolish Patents For Software

Microsoft has filed very high number of patent applications in the US, which are under review currently - the pace of filing: 60 fresh, non obvious patentable ideas every week. Reason for sudden increase in applications - Microsoft says it finds that others file about two patents for every $1 million spent on research and development. If Microsoft was spending $6 billion to $7.5 billion annually on its R&D, it would need to file at least 3,000 applications. NYTimes reports that The pharma industry is lucky to land a single patent after placing a multihundred-million-dollar bet and waiting patiently 10 years for it to play out.

Abolishing software patents would be a very good thing,as increasingly the current system actually impedes the advance of software technology, at the same time that it works quite nicely to enrich patent holders.A patent goes well beyond copyright and trademarks - It protects even the underlying concepts from being used by others - for 20 years. The article highlights that had Dan Bricklin, the creator of VisiCalc, the spreadsheet that gave people a reason to buy a personal computer, obtained a patent covering the program in 1979, Microsoft would not have been able to bring out Excel until 1999. Nor would Word or PowerPoint have appeared if the companies that had brought out predecessors obtained patent protection for their programs. Mr. Bricklin, who has started several software companies and defensively acquired a few software patents along the way, says he, too, would cheer the abolition of software patents, which he sees as the bane of small software companies. Mr.Bricklin points out that Microsoft was seen as a poster child of success without software patents in the past.
When Mr.Bricklin tried to patent his inventions – he was counseled that the courts regarded software as merely a collection of mathematical algorithms, tiny revelations of nature's secrets - not as an invention, and thus not patentable. The legal environment changed not because of new legislation, but by accident. Microsoft had not taken an interest in patents in its early years because, as it thought it could rely on copyright. Microsoft says that the courts changed the rules, and Microsoft had to respond like everyone else. Eliminating software patents would give Microsoft another chance to repair its relationship with open-source users. Microsoft has repeatedly pointed out to "intellectual property risk" that corporate customers should take into account when comparing software vendors. This has now led to an interesting situation :On the one side, Microsoft has an overflowing war chest and bulging patent portfolio, ready to fight - or cross-license with - any plaintiff who accuses it of patent infringement. On the other are the open-source developers, without war chest, without patents of their own to use as bargaining chips and without the financial means to indemnify their customers.

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