Continuing on the last question – Stupid Question 154: Bug, issue or defect? What is the correct term? it feels natural to proceed with these two question.
Whenever you see me do double question it means it has taken time to look into the question (this one took a few hours, I spend on average between 30 min to 3 hours per question), and I feel like the topic is best divided into several questions that fit together.
For some the first question might seem really stupid, who doesn’t know that they do exist? But, I don’t think everybody knows that,- and that many of us that do know haven’t quite crasped the extent of the patent and the implications. It is a very important subject, and honestly I was unaware that the patents existed in the form they do. Let me explain.
Software patents do, and do not exist. What? Exactly. They do exist, but the definition of what a software patent is is so vague, varies so much, and so do the disagreements. There has been a software patent debate going on for years, and being new to this industry I only recently started looking into it. A software patent should not be confused with a copyright patent. While a copyright patent protects the writing itself (this applies even if the author has not explicitly written that in their code), a software patent is according to Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII) as being a “patent on any performance of a computer realized by means of a computer program” (yes, I did copy that line from Wikipedia). A very vague description, and actually there is no legal definition, hence the ‘do not exists, but they do’ comment I made earlier. It’s considered intellectual property (fancy name), and just last year alone more than 5,600 patent-infringement lawsuits were filed in the U.S. and you guessed it, there is a lot of money involved. The laws regarding software patents varies a lot from country to country, if software can be patented, the definition, and the coverage.
Today there are so many patents that whatever you are programming you are right now infringing on quite a few of them- and they might not even go under the ‘software patent’ definition, and the biggest problem is the lack of a clear definition which means that even patent counselors have no chance of knowing if, which and how bits of software infringe on other patents.
The first patent came out in 1966, and from that one patent we are at above 16 000 patents in US alone, but then again US does seem to be the forefront figure for software patent court cases, so it doesn’t represent the rest of the world.
As I mention earlier, there is an ongoing debate, and I would like to encourage everybody- and in particular those that work with software, to get involved in the debate. For now I’ll leave the answers above as is – very short and somewhat vague, but I promise to return with a big article on this topic. It would be well worth the time!
For those that want to read more about it, here are a few links:
Wikipedia article on software patents
Software patent debate
Your software and how to protect it – guide (pdf)
Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure
End software patents
World intellectual property organization : software patents
Software patent institute