Thursday, May 11, 2006

Some say the world will end in fire...

SOME say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

--Robert Frost

Everyone has their favorite theory on how the world will end. Or at least what will bring about the collapse of western civilization. I think it will be post-modernism, one of my friends thinks it will be patents. I'm not quite so apocalyptic about the issue of patents or for that matter copyrights, but I do agree that it's screwed up. Part of his recent anger comes from a conversation he had recently with an employee at a large computer company. (Initially I was going to say which one, but lest I get myself or more importantly my friend into trouble, I decided not too.)

They were discussing a little program my friend had come up with. Essentially what it does is look up what region someone is from when they visit your website, and then allows you to block people from high fraud regions (i.e. Nigeria). It makes him a little bit of money each month, but he'd like it to make more, so he was sort of shopping it around and he ended up talking to this guy, who said, "My company has a patent on that and they're going to sue you." Now I have no idea what his company would actually do or whether they actually even have a patent, but you can quickly see where it starts to get ridiculous.

For something to be patentable it has to be novel, non-obvious and useful. I would argue that this particular idea is neither novel nor non-obvious (who knows it may not even be useful). The second requirement of course is that there be no prior examples of what you're patenting, otherwise known as Prior Art. Which whould probably also be the case here. But of course once the patent office grants the patent supposedly all these questions have been answered, so defending yourself of the basis of prior art is more difficult than it might seem. Compounding this problem, many patents are written so broadly that claiming to have invented the internet is apparently not restricted to Al Gore (yes I know that's an urban legend)

These overly broad patents lead to what are called submarine patents, where someone patents some broad concept and when someone else invents a specific application the first person sues them for infringment. The list of abuses goes on and on. I'm not sure what my point is anymore, truth be told that while no one gets as angry about patents as my friend, I can get pretty worked up myself. I guess the big difference is that I don't think that's the way the world will end, though I do agree with him that it makes it difficult to make a living creating software.

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.


Anonymous Ed said...

Well, it'd be interesting to hear what a lawyer has to say, but doing the same general thing isn't patentable in software, I imagine. Otherwise, we'd have one OS, one suite of office apps... wait, we pretty much do.

Of course, they might know that, and just want to kill you with legal fees, figuring you as a "little guy."

5:35 PM  
Anonymous Geshin said...

"It's the end of the world as we know it, And I feel fine." -REM

7:30 AM  
Anonymous rob said...

The copy editor in whether you should add a parenthetical disclaimer when you mention a friend by name in your last paragraph that this friend is NOT the software engineering friend.

The previous paragraphs suggest that this named friend is the unnamed friend from paragraph one. Identity revealed? Or maybe you were concerned only with hiding the name of the software company? Just trying to help you protect the innocent. ;-)

1:00 PM  

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