May 31, 2005

The same research paper: My style

Since I showed you that long and dull research paper on my software patents I thought I would show you the speech I was giving on the same topic. This is much more my style of writing (you'll probably notice within the first few sentences), and it also provides much more of an insight into the whys and hows of software patents. Here it is:

Software Patents: A Bad Idea

     Imagine that you wrote a book, and you managed to get it published and put into bookstores. Now imagine something terrible happens: Someone starts selling your book without your permission for less money. And even worse: They take credit for the book and claim that you are the one who stole his book idea and are selling it for more money because you’re greedy. Wouldn’t that make you mad? Well fortunately, protection from this sort of fraud is readily available in the form of something called a copyright. A copyright is the right to own exclusive rights to something you create. In other words, it is your right to be the only person who sells or offers something you make. With something as straightforward as a book, this is a fairly simple law to enforce and it also is a near-completely justified ownership. But it doesn’t always work. Now let’s try something a little more complicated.
     Let’s say that you wrote a book, a book being many sheets of information between two hard covers, but this is not any book. You’ve written the FIRST book. It contains some very obviously useful information and many people buy it from you, but then someone else writes another book. So you apply for something called a patent on the concept of book. What does this patent do? It gives you the exclusive right to produce anything that fits the description of “many sheets of information between two hard covers.” When someone else writes their own book and sells it, you get paid for every copy of a book they sell because you own the idea, and if you don’t get paid, you say that a patent violation has occurred and you get the government to stop them from selling books. Is that right? Just because you wrote the first book, should you have the right to charge other people for making books? Well obviously, no one wrote the first book in recent memory, and most certainly the idea of patents hadn’t really evolved during that time, but the point still remains: It’s a questionable thing to own something so broad as an idea.
     You may think that nothing so ridiculous ever happens in today’s modern society. Why would something so broad and unquestionably necessary to society be allowed to be owned? Imagine if in addition to your monthly bill for your Internet connection, you also had to pay a fee for every link you clicked. Every time you went from webpage to another you payed a small fee. Wouldn’t that be outrageous? Well sadly enough, the patent office actually allowed this idea to be patented by a company called British Telecommunications. When they attempted to start charging companies for use of “their” idea – known as “hyperlinks” – the court flatly refused to allow it. A clause known as “prior innovation” exists, which says that if someone can prove that the patent holder wasn’t the first person to come up with an idea then his or her patent is void. British Telecommunications obviously was unable to prove that they were the first people to use html or the idea of hyperlinks and so they lost their patent. But ask yourselves: why was this patent even issued in the first place?
     Patents much more outrageous than this exist. Consider U.S. Patent 6,004,596, which gives the J.M. Smucker company ownership of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. No, you heard correctly, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a patented idea. Not only that, but they have enforced this idea. A Michigan store known as Albie's Food was forced to discontinue the selling of their crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Why?! WHY?! The first peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are guessed to have been circulated around 1904, and that the patent was awarded to the company in December of 1999. If they really did make the first peanut butter and jelly sandwich around 1904, what made them wait 95 years before patenting it? Because it’s not their idea! They claim their patent is valid on several technicalities (mainly pertaining to the crustless seal and the idea of peanut butter on the outside and jelly on the inside in order to prevent soggy bread), but why do they need a patent on this idea? Companies have begun to abuse patents as a way of guaranteeing profits from a product, but why can’t companies simply make the best product out there and trust people to come to them because of it?
     Now you may be asking yourselves, what does this have to do with software? Well these days companies follow a very simple strategy for making money: innovate, patent, profit. You think of an idea, get it patented, and when people start to use it in their programs, you charge them money. Let’s use an example that all of you would know: the mp3. The reason that mp3s are so popular is because they allowed music to be stored very compactly, and then it was implemented by popular software such as napster. The method of changing music from other formats into mp3s is a patented idea. Every time that you buy a piece of software that plays mp3s or that transforms other formats into mp3s (or vise versa), a small portion of the price paid for that software goes to the makers of the mp3 format. Even when you buy a song off a website like itunes, they are charged for it. But is that fair? The mp3 has become an integral part of many our everyday lives. We listen to it in our mp3 players and on our computers, so how is it fair that one company owns something that is such a part of out society? Now we would all survive if the mp3 dissapeared. Other formats would come and replace it, and the people who patented it really did invent it. They also charge reasonable prices for it, and change depending on the product. They only require 1 cent for every mp3 sold, which obviously is not going to herald the destruction of the mp3 market (Buerkle 22). But what about some things that have been patented that would really affect your lives?
     Patent 6,631,412 gave Microsoft ownership of an idea called “system and method for activity monitoring and reporting in a computer network.” What that overly complex sentence describes is something that is a standard in almost all instant messaging programs: if someone sends a message, an alert comes up telling you that you have received one (“Rush” 6). Do you ever use AIM? How about Yahoo messenger? How about something even closer to you right now: text messaging on your cell phone? How would you like it if you had to pay for those things? How would you like it if Microsoft decided to charge hundreds of dollars for every alert, thus making sure that you had to use their products for any and all text-messaging programs that have any kind of alert? Obviously Microsoft couldn’t ever enforce their patent to that degree, especially considering the fact that they didn’t actually originally invent the product, but the fact that they were awarded the patent at all raises serious questions about the patent office’s ability to determine the originality of a product.
     There are thousands of patents like this, that really shouldn’t have been awarded and it has actually gotten to such a point that many companies patent ideas in order to protect themselves from being charged for using them. And since patents can be sold, these “defensive” patents become dangerous once the companies that created them disband or go bankrupt. Novell recently purchased several of these patents and also said that it was for defensive reasons. So why are these patents being issued? Because very large companies claim that to be able to turn a profit and to guarantee secure investments they NEED patents. But considering that many products that you use on a daily basis are offered by many companies and yet they all still make money without patents on the ideas used in those programs, is this true?
I’m here to tell you that no company needs patents to guarantee profit. Individual inventors can use patents, but only for very specific ideas. When companies are allowed to make sweeping patents and prevent others from freely using these ideas to further develop technology it stifles innovation and makes the development of new technologies continually harder. Perhaps it was best said by Isaac Newton: “If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.” Almost all computer technology is based on other computer technology. If we say that no one can use one’s idea that becomes a part of what we do on a daily basis then we have effectively halted progress in that area. So how can we keep innovation alive while not removing the profit from software? Well for the most part the best idea is to simply keep what you did to make you software work a secret (the strategy that Microsoft followed for years) or do as most pieces of software have chosen to do: Make a free version of your software and then hope that the people who use your software decide to buy it after they have used it for a while. Build up company trust and then ask for donations on completely free software. As unlikely as these ideas sound for making money many companies pull a profit from such simplistic business strategies, and they also help to make sure that progress on the internet doesn’t stop.

Posted by Kickmyassman at May 31, 2005 10:11 PM

That is actually very interesting, but I don't quite understand the patent for the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Did they patent the idea for any peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or just the one of their design, the crustless, peanut butter on the outside one? If so, i think that that could be a little less farfetched of a patent than on all sandwiches. Still crazy, but just a little farfetched

Posted by: Ben at June 1, 2005 12:30 PM

I actually missed this entry somehow. That's a fantastic speech- your wording was accessible and fundamentally flawless.
Ben the whole rationale for their PB&J patent was that they thought it was an exceptional act of genius to put the peanut butter on both sides

Posted by: Jack at June 21, 2005 01:46 PM
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