Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Thursday, October 5, 2006

Why Software Patents Stifle Innovation And Kill Competition - Video

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Software Patents Stifle Innovation And Kill Competition In Favour Of A Few.

A software patent effectively stifles innovation and ensures that an elite few reap the rewards, while everyone else is left out in the cold. While Copyright, Copyleft and Creative Commons licenses protect authors work in accordance with their wishes, Software Patents choke creativity by applying 20 year monopolies on broad, ill defined ideas that effectively make innovation a legal minefield.

Photo credit: Patent for the invention of the laser - (c) Bell Labs

Why Patents?

When a software program is written, it is automatically covered by copyright law. This simple legal concept protects the authors of software just as it protects the authors of books, movies, music and other creative endeavors. If I were to write an application, just as if I were to write a novel, my idea would be protected by copyright.

Patents do not protect individual works. Instead, they are designed to create powerful monopolies and prevent competitors from making products or services that might overlap with their broad, general function. The benefit to the patent holder is that they can effectively crush, or demand compensation, for any new works that touch on their patented idea, ensuring that better or different services and software are never allowed to exist.

What Is A Software Patent?

Software Patents are the result of applying laws about physical objects to intellectual property. In Software Patents In The EU, Edward Griffith-Jones and Tom Chance describe the situation:

"Patents were originally introduced to protect concrete and physical inventions. Any type of state protectionism is a contract between the creator and society, under which society abridges certain freedoms in return for increased productivity through financial compensation.

Specifically, patent law gives inventors an exclusive right to new technology for 20 years in return for publication of the technology's specifications and for use of the technology in the monopolist's products. So, if allowing patents wouldn't lead to increased productivity, and they wouldn't benefit the whole of society; they would be a bad idea.

While traditional patents were for concrete and physical inventions, software patents cover inventive ideas."

In applying patents designed to protect physical, concrete objects to nebulous, broad and general ideas companies are able to ensure that their competitors have little chance of encroaching upon their business with similar or related ideas.

How Broad Are These Patents?

The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII) is a non-profit association that advocates copyright, but draws attention to the dangers of Software Patents. To illustrate just how powerful patents can be in stifling innovation and maintaining monopolistic practices, they created a powerful example of how existing patents could close down a simple web shop, due to infringement of no less than twenty patents.

Photo credit: Ole Tange

The existing European patents being infringed upon by the mere existence of this simple web shop are listed by Ole Tange at the FFII website, and include:

  • 1.) Webshop: Selling things over a network using a server, client and payment processor, or using a client and a server - EP803105EP738446
  • 6.) View/download film: Video data distribution through the web - EP933892
  • and 15.) Support database: Network support system using databases - EP673135

Do Patents Really Pose A Threat?

It would seem that these ideas are so broad as to be unenforceable, so do we really have to worry about companies patenting such sweeping ideas?

In a word, yes. While video sharing sites, web shops and sites using database support get away with being in breach of patents, the existence of such patents allow large companies to throw their weight around and crush upstart developers work before it ever sees the light of day. The smaller the company, and the less legal resources it has behind it, the easier it is for monolithic patent holders to wipe out innovation with legal threats.

Ambitious patent holders keen to dispense with competition and ensure their monopolies continue to resort to the patent system to close doors and stifle invention. Social Networking giant Friendster own a patent for "social networking", surely one of Web 2.0's most important, prevailing ideas. This patent, (detailed at, refers simply to a "system, method, and apparatus for connecting users in an online computer system based on their relationships within social networks."

The potential for Friendster to wield this patent against innovators and start ups is huge, and serves as just one example among thousands that threaten to keep innovation at bay, and money in the pockets of a well protected few.

In this short animated video by the FFII, How Software Patents Work, and the implications of these patents are explained in full.

Video Source: FFII

Read More Elsewhere

If you are interested in learning more about Software Patents and the threat they pose to innovation, creativity and independent publishers and businesses, you might want to check out:

Michael Pick -
Reference: The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure
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posted by Robin Good on Thursday, October 5 2006, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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