Software Patents a RISK to the Jamaican and Caribbean ICT industry

If you haven’t been paying attention billionaire Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft) is suing Apple, Google, Facebook, AOL, eBay, Netflix, Yahoo!, Staples, OfficeMax, Office Depot, and YouTube over patent infringements. “A patent is a set of exclusive rights granted by a state (national government) to an inventor or their assignee for a limited period of time in exchange for a public disclosure of an invention.”, Wikipedia.

It is perhaps one of the biggest patent lawsuits to date, and it is one of many patent lawsuits filed since the start of the year.  Paul Allen’s company Interval Licensing has hundreds of patents and has chosen four (4) out of its arsenal to use in the suit. One of the patents mentioned in the suit is the analyzing of a user’s behaviour/action (e.g. search) to suggest a list of related content.  Doesn’t this sound like a lot of websites you use?

This post is not about Paul Allen taking on the web, but rather to stir your thoughts on the subject and bring to light an issue you may have never thought of before.

So what does it really mean for Jamaica/Caribbean ICT?

Simply put, it means that once you produce software you could be at risk, things that seem simple, obvious, or ubiquitous could land you into huge trouble.

To get a better idea of the potential impact, lets look at the a few patents, and answer if your software has implemented any of these?

  • Displayed a popup a window.
  • Displayed a progress bar to show how much is left in a process.
  • Resized an image on the fly to present it to a user.
  • Expanded LOL in a message into laughing out loud and displayed it to a user.
  • Sent an email with a compressed attachment (zip files).

Did you answer yes to one or more? Then you could be at risk of being sued!

To put it into more of an everyday practical context, if you run an eCommerce site you are probably in violation of around twenty (20) patents.  Check out FFI’s Webshop example – http://webshop.ffii.org/

I may have oversimplified the description of the patents above, however it is to make it easier to understand and to highlight how things developers take for granted could be putting their business at risk.

Does this mean I should not develop software? Short answer no, you need to be aware of the risks involved and mitigate against them as best as possible.

Better yet stand up and say NO to Software Patents!

Khary Sharpe

Related / Reference Links:

Example of Software Patents
http://eupat.ffii.org/patents/samples/index.en.html

Controversial Patents
http://oreilly.com/pub/q/patent_list

Paul Allen Patent Suit
http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco/2010/08/30/puzzling-out-paul-allens-patent-suit-against-silicon-valleys-giants/

Oracle Sues Google over Android and Java
http://news.cnet.com/8301-30684_3-20013546-265.html

Kodak files patent suit against Apple and RIM
http://www.engadget.com/2010/01/14/kodak-files-patent-lawsuits-against-apple-and-rim/

USPTO Awards LOL Patent to IBM
http://idle.slashdot.org/story/09/12/30/166220/USPTO-Awards-LOL-Patent-To-IBM

http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO1&Sect2=HITOFF&d=PALL&p=1&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fsrchnum.htm&r=1&f=G&l=50&s1=7,640,233.PN.&OS=PN/7,640,233&RS=PN/7,640,233

Photo by Han Soete

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  • I am not against patents in general. If you invent a new machine by all means patent it.

    I specifically think software patents can lead to the industry being open to a select few, a cartel of sorts.

    That said…

    If you are looking to make money, software patents won’t help you. If there is no demand for your goods/service you are not going make money.

    Case in point Paul Allen’s own company closed even though it had hundreds of patents.

    Copyrighting is very reasonable JMD$150 and up, if you compare that to filling for a patent (JMD$50,000 and up) and factoring the time it would take, then copyrighting should be your first order of business as a developer.

    It is easier for someone to steal your code than to rewrite it.

    Most software patents aren’t unique, there are many developers who have independently come up with the same ideas, simply because they are a natural evolution of the software development life cycle, as you code, test and review you will see the issues/needs and come up with solutions accordingly.

    For that very reason software patents are being negated as persons come forward and establish prior art.

    If you want to make money as a developer solve real problems being experienced by real people…think niche.

    If you are a developer, check out Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson – http://amzn.to/crIQWM and Purple Cow by Seth Godin – http://amzn.to/9SUKMj

  • @Hey Most countries have signed trade agreements and/or international treaties (with the USA et al) which may contain clauses about patents, and as a result means your country has to enforce it.

    Besides that, the US is one of the biggest markets this side of the world, software patent can be used as a barrier to entry.

  • First off – bringing this topic to light was a stroke of genius. It is both timely and insightful, however…

    “Better yet stand up and say NO to Software Patents!”

    Wow… it is actually a little hard to believe that anyone looking to make money in technology would say that. Patents are without a doubt the chief reason science and technology continues to move forward at the pace it does – because patents are the single-most profitable tool for protecting and commercializing technology-based ideas. It is a simple principle – little reward, little effort; much reward, much effort.

    Without patents, the programmer is left to protect his investment of time and energy using a copyright… and given that a copyright simply protects the “expressed idea” – people are free to take the idea, change it ever so slightly and then call it their own. The end of this chain-copying? The reducing of any commercialization effort to either a price OR first-to-market war.

    The points you raise are salient – but the repercussions of a “…say NO to Software Patents!” are much to dire for the thought to earn my support.

    One more thing: many people view patents as huge barriers, without noting that in order for someone to gain a patent they need to disclose EXACTLY how the patented technology is going to work. In other words, as soon as the period for a patent expires ALL the knowledge contained therein falls into the public domain and becomes F-R-E-E!

  • Hey

    I am pretty sure patents are only valid in the country/countries that they were given. So if the patent was filed only in the United States it doesn’t matter in other countries.