When learning about patents in Design Methodology (a core class for Mechanical Engineers), the thought of patents stifling innovation never really came up. According to the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), a patent grants the “right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, selling or importing the invention.” Patents protect inventions for 20 years. This can be interpreted in a good and bad way. The good is that a person has 20 years to do whatever he or she likes with the invention, without worry of someone stealing the idea. The bad is that those are 20 years during which no innovation could potentially occur for anything that relies on that invention.
There are, of course, many cases in which registering for a patent seems like a completely reasonable and profitable step to take. This was true for Eugene Gagliardi, the creator of Steak-Umms, whose ability to register for a patent helped revive his small family business and turn it into a wild success. In the Planet Money episode, The Case Against Patents, the hosts point out that the “lone inventors in the basement” would have to work for large companies in order to create anything of impact. Then again, having a patent for something that you invented in your garage is well and good, but if you and the USPTO are the only ones who know about your fantastic invention, what good is it doing? This sentiment can be applied to software. If someone files a patent for a small piece of programming and no one ever finds it, it doesn’t matter. But if a large company ends up using that program as a part of a much more important new software, many issues arise.
The software issue makes the patent question infinitely more complicated due to the highly collaborative nature of it. I had never heard of patent trolls until these reading assignments, but I can’t say I’m surprised that they exist. (I am, however, very surprised that the man who coined the term ended up founding a company that many characterize as the biggest patent troll in the industry, as revealed in When Patents Attack!) Patent trolls are just another example of people who take advantage of systems that are meant to protect the rights of citizens and improve lives. The existence of these trolls doesn’t necessarily say something about the patent system itself, but once again shows how easily something can be corrupted.
As someone who never truly bought into the old adage that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” (I’ve always hated copycats), the notion of being able to legally protect ideas is very appealing, and I am not quite sold on the idea that patents shouldn’t exist. However, 20 years is a very long time. Just thinking of all of the advancements that have made in my 21-year lifetime makes me realize just how much innovation really could be prevented during the terms of a patent. Perhaps a 2-year protection should be granted and, at the end of that time period, there must be some sort of proof that the invention is being used or improved upon in order for it to continue to be protected. This would certainly add a whole lot of work for the government (maybe create some jobs?), but it could be an interesting way to ensure that innovation continues to happen while also maintaining some semblance of security.
From what I understand from the readings, a lot of the trouble with software patents occurs due to the broad wording of the patent itself and that many people are discovering the same programs around the same time, as was the case with the “online backup system” described in When Patents Attack! I am not well-versed enough in computer science to comment on what system would be best to ensure that people who create software get some credit while not stifling innovation, but I do believe that there needs to be protection for ideas. Just because you can’t hold something in your hands does not mean that it is not valuable and worthy of safekeeping.