Patents for abstract ideas are Wrong!

I’ve just read that a well known company has successfully sued another well known company over the use of the following idea:

“The transfer of photographs from a camera to a central computer over a wireless network”

This patent will now allow its owner to chase competing companies and greatly increase the cost of competition in the portable device with cameras market. Here’s why I think such patents are bad.

There has always been a need to get a photograph from camera to editor or publisher as soon as possible. If you’re a sports journalist taking the shot of that winning goal, then it would be really great to have that photo sold to the news sites before the game is over. If you’re an event or a wedding photographer or any commercial or news photographer then getting those photos to the editor as soon as possible is an advantage.

So the advent of networked cameras was inevitable. As soon as the technology advanced enough to allow it someone was going to do it. Anyone with moderate skill in engineering or computing would be able to achieve it by combining off the shelf components. We have embedded wi-fi and 3G communication. We already have small computers in our  cameras. HTTP POST has existed since the 1990s. It’s a no-brainer!

A patent for an idea covers all executions of that idea. A copyright for code covers just that execution but allows others to compete by solving the problem in their own way. Patents exist for hardware because they cover the specific implementation. There are many patents for things like corkscrews – but there are no patents for the basic idea of opening a bottle of wine. Software patents change this.

The world of the 80s and 90s was full of innovation. We had no software patents then. People could not “own” a basic idea, or a file format. People owned code, but someone else could come along and solve the problem in their own way. File formats were not protected by patent (or DMCA), so a competitor could make their product compatible and allow users to change. This encouraged competition and it kept incumbents on their toes. It was good for consumers, even if the incumbents had to spend money to keep ahead. Of course if you were first to market you had a real advantage, and copyright protection stops people just taking your implementation.

Bill Gates once said that if software patents existed in the 90s there’d be no Microsoft today. If the concept of the spreadsheet or the word processor was patented there’d likely be no Microsoft Office – or Microsoft Office may have a fraction of the functionality it has today. Internet Explorer stagnated before Mozilla came along and competed with it. Thankfully it has not been possible to patent the idea of the web browser, but this did not stop companies trying to lock users into their product through things like patented file formats.

Patents for abstract ideas are bad. They stop other people solving the problem and competing so reducing innovation. Today’s world is full of patent litigation which just costs. Small innovators face huge risk when entering the market. Patents are not meant to allow an incumbent to force out competition by granting ownership of a whole problem domain. Patents are meant to promote innovation by encouraging people to share ideas and implementations so others can later build on them. This is lacking in software patents.

First to File

There is a call, from the larger companies, to change the American patent system to grant patents to the first person to file as opposed to the first person to invent. This seems so unjust!

I could mention an idea here, maybe even go some way to implementing it, but if I don’t spend the cash to patent the idea someone else could come along and patent it. They could then sue me for using my own idea! In a first to file system they would presumably succeed.

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