Re: Intellectual Property Rights and software

Hal Finney (
Mon, 21 Dec 1998 12:07:20 -0800

Tim Bates, <>, writes:
> Software patents are really bad. Criminal in fact. This is why Richard
> Stallman is so important. They essentially place a lien on the future
> mental work of other people.
> [Example of obvious software patent on backing store.]
> However, it is illegal to use this unless you pay a royalty to the patent
> holder. That is just plain BS. The law essentially says that older people
> have have a right to earn a living off of younger people (who because
> they are younger will come up the solution later). It is wrong.

Your reasoning would apply to other patents as well, right? Someone who gets a patent on some mechanical device, or some electronic circuit, can require other people to pay a royalty to use the invention. In some cases, critics may complain that almost anyone would have come up with the same solution.

Patents are not supposed to be issued on obvious technology. Patents are supposed to be useful, new, and non-obvious. From the U.S. Code:

: (a) A patent may not be obtained though the invention is not identically
: disclosed or described as set forth in section 102 of this title, if the
: differences between the subject matter sought to be patented and the
: prior art are such that the subject matter as a whole would have been
: obvious at the time the invention was made to a person having ordinary
: skill in the art to which said subject matter pertains. Patentability
: shall not be negatived by the manner in which the invention was made.

Sometimes the patent examiner makes a mistake. Software patents are relatively new, and there have been a number of mistakes made, perhaps due to the inexperience of patent examiners. This doesn't make software patents any more "criminal" than other patents, but it does mean that we have had to live with some bad decisions.

> The defence of this law is pathetic: that innovators will not think of
> backing store unless they have a right to stop others from using this or
> to make them pay. Of course people will invent baking store: they need it
> for their programs.
> Copyright is a completely different ball game. I am glad to see copyright
> on software just as on books. But patents are like saying no one else can
> do physics without paying Feynman.

Don't forget, though, that patents only last for 20 years, while copyright can go on for 100. Many of the controversial software patents will be expiring in the next few years. In my own field, cryptography, the patent on public key technology expired last year, and the patent on the RSA algorithm expires in September of 2000.