Several patent reform organizations have joined forces to abolish software patents. The End Software Patents (ESP) coalition aims to eliminate patents that do not specify a physically innovative step, which would likely include many of the software patents granted today. The coalition was founded by the Free Software Foundation, Public Patent Foundation, and Software Freedom Law Center.
The ESP coalition will fight software patents on two fronts:
- Assist companies that challenge software patents in the courts and at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)
- Educate the public about the severe problems with software patents, with the ultimate goal of eliminating many software patents
Nearly every company uses computer software, which means that nearly every company faces real liability from software patents. ESP estimates that U.S. companies spend $11.2 billion a year defending against software patent lawsuits. And these are not just the Microsoft’s and IBM’s of the world, but also non-tech companies like Kraft Foods, Ford Motor and the Green Bay Packers, which face software patent infringement lawsuits simply by using the standard software necessary to run a modern business.
If you have a website or are selling goods online, then you may be violating over 4,300 patents yourself.
The number of software patents has increased 10% annually over the past decade and jumped 40% in 2006 with more than 40,000 new software patents approved. Currently there are over 325,000 registered software patents. In addition, many of these patents are overly broad or sufficiently vague enough to block entire technical areas from any further innovation or development.
ARS Technica sums up the software patent mess:
The rapid proliferation of software patents in recent years has transformed the technology industry into an intellectual property minefield. Software companies have been forced to accumulate massive patent portfolios to use as leverage in elaborate cross-licensing agreements. The resulting situation, which is akin to an arms race, seriously disadvantages independent software developers and has made it increasingly difficult to write conventional software without committing any infringement.
As an independent software vendor, I inadvertently face significant potential liability from software patents everyday simply by doing my job writing code. And yet when I turn to the patent system to protect the code I’ve written, I face a complex, expensive and bureaucratic system that makes it economically infeasible for my small company to protect its intellectual property.
Yes, the software patent system is terribly broken and is failing to protect the very inventors for which it was created. But should we throw out the baby with the bath water and eliminate software patents completely? DevTopics will explore this important topic in a series of articles over the next few months.
Article published on March 5, 2008
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