Monday, August 01, 2005

MSFT's 3000 Patents/Yr target

on NYTimes

Perhaps that is going too far. Certainly, we should go through the lot and reinstate the occasional invention embodied in hardware. But patent protection for software? No. Not for Microsoft, nor for anyone else.

Others share this conviction. "Abolishing software patents would be a very good thing," says Daniel Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation, a nonprofit group in New York that challenges what it calls "wrongly issued" patents. Mr. Ravicher, a patent lawyer himself, says he believes that the current system actually impedes the advance of software technology, at the same time that it works quite nicely to enrich patent holders. That's not what the framers of the Constitution wanted, he said.



All software published in the United States is protected by strong copyright and trademark protection. Microsoft Excel, for example, cannot be copied, nor can its association with Microsoft be removed. But a patent goes well beyond this. It protects even the underlying concepts from being used by others - for 20 years.

As recently as the 1970's, software developers relied solely upon copyrights and trademarks to protect their work. This turned out rather well for Microsoft. Had Dan Bricklin, the creator of VisiCalc, the spreadsheet that gave people a reason to buy a personal computer, obtained a patent covering the program in 1979, Microsoft would not have been able to bring out Excel until 1999. Nor would Word or PowerPoint have appeared if the companies that had brought out predecessors obtained patent protection for their programs.




Making the best possible argument for Microsoft's newly acquired passion for patents is a job that falls to Brad Smith, the company's senior vice president and general counsel. Last week, we discussed the changing legal landscape in the 1990's. Microsoft had not taken an interest in patents in its early years because, as Mr. Smith said, "We thought we could rely on copyright." The courts changed the rules, and Microsoft had to respond like everyone else.

Why did Microsoft increase its patent-application target so sharply just last year?

"We realized we were underpatenting," Mr. Smith explained. The company had seen studies showing that other information technology companies filed about two patents for every $1 million spent on research and development. If Microsoft was spending $6 billion to $7.5 billion annually on its R&D, it would need to file at least 3,000 applications to keep up with the Joneses.

That sounds perfectly innocuous. The really interesting comparisons, though, are found not among software companies, but between software companies and pharmaceutical companies. Pharma is lucky to land a single patent after placing a multihundred-million-dollar bet and waiting patiently 10 years for it to play out. Mark H. Webbink, the deputy general counsel of Red Hat, a Linux and open-source distributor, said it was ridiculous for a software company to grab identical protection for work entailing relatively minuscule investment and trivial claims. He said of current software patents, "To give 20 years of protection does not help innovation."

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