4 May 2011

Who Can Win The Cold War Of Software Patents?


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Looking out for Bilski: software patents v. FOSSphoto © 2010 opensource.com | more info (via: Wylio)

You know it already: Google got hit by a software patent (5,893,120).
Well, that was the decision of the court at first instance and Google is expected to appeal it, but nevertheless it must have hurt. Not the loss of USD 5 Million which Google can easily reimburse out of its petty cash account.
It is about more, far more.

According to Florian Mueller of FOSS Patents the decision is highly significant and will put all of Linux into doubt. On the other side there is Dana Blankenhorn who, citing the CTPN decision, disagrees.

Either way, the question here is why does a case like this attract such attention? I guess the reason lies in that it deals with the highly controversial issue of software patents…

What Are Software Patents All About?

A citation from Van Lindberg’s book  Intellectual Property and Open Source provides for a very good answer: Patents are the most expensive and powerful weapons in an IP arsenal. For some companies, particularly pharmaceutical companies, patents are the lifeblood of invention and the key to profitability. For other companies, particularly software companies, patents are the rough equivalent of madly proliferating nuclear weapon arsenal.

It is obvious: the current legislative framework in which software companies work and compete, allows the patenting of software-related inventions. As a matter of fact, software companies appear to amass software patents not to market and sell them, but to either drive a competitor out of business or to prevent that their competitors drive them out of business.

Having read this, you truly felt the frosty breeze of the Cold War, did you not?

Let me even further amplify this feeling: the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signed during that time between the nuclear powers stands a good comparison to the nowadays patent cross-licensing agreements entered into by technology giants such as Microsoft, Apple, HP and Google.

But even when a nation has a

Powerful Nuclear Arsenal

it is still vulnerable to non-conventional attacks or asymmetrical threats of non abiding adversaries. Last two decades’ terror acts were a good demonstration thereof. They were not performed by the armed forces of “competing” nations, but rather by decentralised rogue organisations.

Likewise, Google’s participation in cross-licensing agreements or patent pools could not hold it harmless from the claims of Bedrock Computer Technologies (BCT).
But who or what is BCT?
It is not a technology vendor, but a so called non-practicing entity (NPE). Or a patent troll, if you prefer. Other such trolls that have gained public attention in recent time are NTPi4i and Acacia.

The end of the Cold War was accompanied by the rise of rogue organisations I mentioned above.
By the same token, patent infringement proceedings under the involvement of patent trolls emerged in the last couple of years. NPE v RiM, Software Tree (an Acacia affiliate) v Red Hat or i4i v Microsoft, to mention some.
Is this a sign that the software patent cold war is over? Well, not really and Nokia’s patent infringement lawsuit against Apple is a good demonstration. Will there be a winner? I strongly doubt it.

What does it mean? It means that the economy simply needs

Another Solution

Something in the sense of the SALT and START treaties which heralded the end of the Cold War. In addition, the economy needs protection against patent trolls whose objective is not to drive innovation but rather the opposite of it.
We as individuals and consumers have also a great interest in finding a solution since we pay the price of its procrastination.

The US Supreme Court missed its historical opportunity In Re Bilski.
Will it err also in i4i v Microsoft?

I hope not and will therefore provide it with a piece of advice, thereby citing (a portion of) the statement of Adobe’s Douglas Brotz during a hearing before the USPTO:

Let me make my position on the patentability of software clear. I
believe that software per se should not be allowed patent protec-
tion.  I take this position as the creator of software and as the
beneficiary  of the rewards that innovative software can bring in
the marketplace...
The problems inherent in certain aspects of  the  patent  process
for  software_related inventions are well_known, the difficulties
of finding and citing prior art, the problems of obviousness, the
difficulties of adequate specifications for software are a few of
those problems. However, I argue that software should not be  pa-
tented,  not  because it is difficult to do so, but because it is
wrong to do so.

 

2 December 2009

In Re Bilski: a setback for business method and software patents?


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The PTO addresses Bilski and software patentsphoto © 2010 opensource.com | more info (via: Wylio)

 

In October 2008, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) issued its decision in re Bilski en banc, describing it as “an historic opportunity to fix the US patent system, as the Bilski rehearing will directly address the boundaries of the subject matter of patents.”

The re Bilski appeal arose from the rejection by the USPTO of all claims because they failed to limit the method’s performance to a specific machine or apparatus, and the method did not involve a transformation of one thing into something different from the original, with the machine-transformation test having been previously articulated in the decisions of the US Supreme Court in Gottschalk v Benson, Parker v Flook and Diamond v Diehr. The Federal Circuit’s decision is thought to have turned the tide for business method patents in the United States.

While Affirming That Business Methods Are Still Patentable

the Court has rejected State Street Bank’s “useful, concrete, and tangible result” test, which many believed had cleared the way for improper patents on fundamental principles and everyday activities that had no connection to technological innovation.

In January 2009, Bilski petitioned the US Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, seeking to overturn the Federal Circuit decision.

In the meantime the Court

Granted Certiorari

and heard oral arguments on 9 November 2009.

Reading that transcript is a quite funny thing. The Justices seem to openly show their reluctance and, even malice, against petitioners’ alleged invention. Mr Jakes, counsel for the petitioners, had to stand for questions like the one of Justice Breyer “You know, I have a great, wonderful, really original method of teaching antitrust law, and it kept 80 percent of the students awake. They learned things — (Laughter.) — it was fabulous. And I could probably have reduced it to a set of steps and other teachers could have followed it. That you are going to say is patentable, too?”

Chief Justice Roberts went even further asking “I’m looking at your Claim 1, in Joint Appendix page 19 to 20. How is that not an abstract idea? You initiate a series of transactions between commodity providers and commodity consumers. You set a fixed price at the consumer end, you set a fixed price at the other end, and that’s it. I mean, I could patent a process where I do the same thing. I initiate a series of transactions with sellers. I initiate a series of transactions with buyers. I buy low and sell high. That’s my patent for maximizing wealth. I don’t see how that’s different than your claim number 1.”

I would not be surprised if the Supreme Court affirmed the Federal Circuit. In such an event, the Justices should take their awaited decision to, hopefully, provide for a long-expected clarity on the patentability of business methods and software implemented inventions.