An excellent analysis of software patents

Posted on
software

Paul Graham writes some good stuff. I've stumbled across some of this articles in the past and, unlike most of these types of essays from other dot-com millionaires, I've always been very impressed.

His latest essay takes on the subject of software patents, a subject that nearly every hacker has an uninformed opinion about. I've always had a very libertarian view about patents in general, and was very glad to read that by Mr. Graham's assessment, I'm at least uniform in my opinions on the validity or worth of patents in our society.
Mr. Graham compares software patents to traditional patents, insightfully and accurately explaining what he thinks are some reasons for the sometimes silly patents issued by the USPTO. He compares the rules to a game of hockey, and lawsuits to the rules of body-checking:

Hockey allows checking. It's part of the game. If your team refuses to do it, you simply lose. So it is in business. Under the present rules, patents are part of the game. What does that mean in practice? We tell the startups we fund not to worry about infringing patents, because startups rarely get sued for patent infringement. There are only two reasons someone might sue you: for money, or to prevent you from competing with them. Startups are too poor to be worth suing for money. And in practice they don't seem to get sued much by competitors, either. They don't get sued by other startups because (a) patent suits are an expensive distraction, and (b) since the other startups are as young as they are, their patents probably haven't issued yet. [3] Nor do startups, at least in the software business, seem to get sued much by established competitors. Despite all the patents Microsoft holds, I don't know of an instance where they sued a startup for patent infringement. Companies like Microsoft and Oracle don't win by winning lawsuits. That's too uncertain. They win by locking competitors out of their sales channels. If you do manage to threaten them, they're more likely to buy you than sue you.

If you've got an interest in intellectual property law and the business of technology and computing, it's certainly a good read. Like always, you'll learn something from one of Paul Graham's essays.