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Old 05-23-2007, 02:45 PM   #14
Xenophon
curmudgeon
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Steve Jordan
But your comment about the patent office's inability to do a proper job at it reinforces my belief that a separate entity is needed, one that provides a patent/copyright of sorts, but specializes in SW.

I realize we're talking about more bureaucracy, but for such a major thing as computers and software, I think well worth it.
If you read about the history of patents, this inability has historically been an issue for every significant new technology that comes under patent protection. Some examples:
  • The British Patent Office granted a patent on "the crank" (back in the early days of steam). This was not a patent on "the crank used in combination with a steam engine to..." but rather on the crank -- no limitations. I think that there were a few thousand years of prior art on this one. Some bright fellow had to invent the sun-and-planet gear to work around this one.
  • The Wright Brothers succeeded in getting a U.S patent on "the wing." In spite of substantial prior art that was well known to the public.
  • See the many, many fights about the RCA radio patents, later found by the courts to have been granted to the wrong inventors.
There're tons more examples in fields ranging from early electronics, to automobiles, to steam engines, to railroads, to chemistry, to VLSI, to you-name-it. During the course I took on the subject, a number of students tried to find even one example where a new technology DIDN'T experience this sort of problem. We couldn't find any. What we did find was a ton of arguments that sounded just like today's no-software-patents folks. "It's a fast-moving field..." "Patents last too long..." "Interfering with progress..." You'll find them all. For airplanes. For steam power. For... Oh, you get the idea.

The common threads that I see are these:
  • Patent offices s*ck at finding prior art that isn't from their own (or some other) patent office. Even when it's been widely published in easily available journals.
  • Every field suffers from 15-35 years of ridiculous, never-should-have-been-granted patents.
  • Every field goes through the "But we're different..." phase of argument.
  • When the dust clears, the patent system does a pretty good job of promoting progress, and helping inventors benefit from worthwhile inventions.
None of which is to say that things couldn't be better. Only that the current mess with computers and software is nothing new.
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