On Software Patents

As I’ve been trying to broaden my knowledge of IT and software development, I thought it would be a good idea to read up on the issues around Intellectual Property as it relates to software – specifically, the idea of software patents and the implications for developers. I think this stuff is important – infringement of patents can lead to legal action which is expensive and can damage reputations.

There’s a lot of information out there on the subject, so rather than just repeat stuff that’s already been said, I thought I would link off a few resources I thought were informative/enjoyable and why.

I found Paul Graham‘s essay, ‘Are Software Patents Evil?‘ after reading a few other resources, but I’d recommend it as a first read as it’s not too long and it has a prosaic style which I thought was quite accessible. It also seems to be a fairly balanced account of the pros and cons of software patents, whereas the other resources I found tended to be in one camp or the other.

Ciaran O’Riordan has published a lengthy overview of the state of play with Software Patents in Europe, also referencing interesting material about the reality of software patents and impact on innovation in the US. There’s a lot of information here between the content and the links and I found it took a bit of digesting, but worth it to find out the recent history with regards software patent legislation.

Patent Risks of Open Source Software is a nice short article, focusing on the legal risks inherent in Open Source. There are some good points made in this paper, answering questions like ‘can you just swap out an open source component that infringes a patent for a custom component you wrote yourself and be safe?’. Although the article is focussed on Open Source, it seems (to me) that most of it is actually applicable to software in general – how much protection do you really get if the closed source software that you’re using is found to infringe patents?

I couldn’t decide whether a user of software that infringes on a third party’s patent could be liable for infringement themselves, so I asked the question on stackoverflow.com. The answer seems to be that yes, a user could be liable, and there are a couple of statements and links off to articles that support that conclusion.

It seems to be something of a consensus that the software patent situation is becoming more heated, and that this focus is being driven by newer players in the game taking legal action perhaps inappropriately against other parties infringing their patents. Searching for company names and ‘patent’ tends to find sequences of results that patent-related news for that company.

The most surprising thing for me about this whole patent business is that a patent lasts twenty years. In IT today, the world changes week by week and month by month. Twenty years ago, there was no such thing as a website. I guess no-one patented the idea of a website. I wonder how the world would be different if someone had?

Pop quiz – can you think of an example of a computing technology that succeeded because it wasn’t patented, or one that succeeded because it was?