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Comment A defense of software patents (Score 1) 278

I concede that there are broken aspects of the system, but I can't understand wanting to wipe out software patents all together.

What is the alternative to software patents?

I'm going for a patent now - it's non-trivial and it was very hard work to solve the problem that it solves. Ideas may be, as some have posted, a dime a dozen. But good ideas take years of research, self-doubt, frustration, compromises, and money. Without the patent protection mechanism (or some viable alternative), I guarantee that I wouldn't have tried as hard, invested as much money and energy as I have. I couldn’t have! It takes too much out of you. I would know that as soon as I tried to launch a business, a delivery mechanism, around it – which requires disclosure to people with money who shouldn’t be trusted and who may be in the industry – that it could be recognized as a good idea, taken, and implemented by their funded team of developers in the blink of an eye. Without patents, innovators would have no choice other than to squirrel away their ideas, forfeit them, or work on salary for The Man big enough to crank it out fast and strong.

Implementing an idea is the easy part. The hard part, the thing worth protecting as a society, is coming up with the “closed” system – that is, one that has a well-defined and well-rounded applicability, a delicate balance between exploits of holes in the problem space and acceptable limitations of an approach. The search, refinement, and repeated failure until, and only rarely, a truly new solution found.

Copyright isn't enough. Compared to coming up with a brand new solution to a hard problem, it wouldn’t take much to refactor the code substantially enough to be ruled a new work. Think practically here: You think the courts are clogged up now with patent infringement cases? What happens when the only recourse for infringement is having the judge (not a developer!) try to figure out whether the two code sets are just refactored transformations of each other? There would be a whole new industry for copyright trolls figuring out how to make a case of transforming some copyright they own into others’ code through a chain of refactoring and trivial changes.

A bit of an aside: Microsoft Word is a popular application. It’s not just coding – it’s also usability research, information architecture, 80/20 balance, infrastructure, discipline. It’s taken a company the size of Microsoft to put it together AND to make it a global success (a difficult and valuable feature in itself, if you ask me). Yes, it has its problems and I’m sure there have been many injustices along its evolution – that’s not the point here. The point is that good software is very difficult and expensive to create – not because it’s hard to write code, but because it’s hard to know what to write. Copying the legitimate innovations within, for this example, Word and implementing them from scratch is impressive, but it dims in comparison to the ubiquitous exposure of the features that the global market has indicated that it prefers.

Anyway, I agree the patent system needs attention. I know I’m likely to still get snaked by it as it stands. But abolishing software patents isn’t the answer. We need a more delicate kind of reform.

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