Language Selection

English French German Italian Portuguese Spanish

Why Bill Gates Wants 3,000 New Patents

Filed under
Microsoft

"EXCITING," "uninteresting" and "not exciting" don't seem like technical terms. But they show up a lot in United States patent application No. 20,050,160,457, titled "Annotating Programs for Automatic Summary Generation." It seems to be about baseball. The inventors have apparently come up with software that can detect the portions of a baseball broadcast that contain what they call "excited speech," as well as hits (what I call "excited ball") and automatically compile those portions into a highlights reel.

If the patent is granted, after a review process that is likely to take three years, it will be assigned to the inventors' employer, Microsoft.

The staff of the United States Patent and Trademark Office has been deluged with paperwork from Microsoft of late. It was one year ago that the company's chairman, Bill Gates, announced plans to pick up the pace, raising its goal of patent applications submitted annually to 3,000 from 2,000. The company is right on target.

It must feel like a bit of a stretch to come up with 60 fresh, nonobvious patentable ideas week in, week out. Perhaps that is why this summer's crop includes titles like "System and Method for Creating a Note Related to a Phone Call" and "Adding and Removing White Space From a Document."

I have not seen the software in use. But if I were in a position to make a ruling, and even if I accepted the originality claim on its face, I would process these swiftly: Rejected.

Microsoft's other pending applications - 3,368 at last count - should receive the same treatment. And while tidying up, let's also toss out the 3,955 patents that Microsoft has already been issued.

Perhaps that is going too far. Certainly, we should go through the lot and reinstate the occasional invention embodied in hardware. But patent protection for software? No. Not for Microsoft, nor for anyone else.

Others share this conviction. "Abolishing software patents would be a very good thing," says Daniel Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation, a nonprofit group in New York that challenges what it calls "wrongly issued" patents. Mr. Ravicher, a patent lawyer himself, says he believes that the current system actually impedes the advance of software technology, at the same time that it works quite nicely to enrich patent holders. That's not what the framers of the Constitution wanted, he said.

Earlier this month, the European Parliament rejected a measure, nicknamed the "software patent directive," that would have uniformly removed restrictions on those patents among European Union members.

All software published in the United States is protected by strong copyright and trademark protection. Microsoft Excel, for example, cannot be copied, nor can its association with Microsoft be removed. But a patent goes well beyond this. It protects even the underlying concepts from being used by others - for 20 years.

As recently as the 1970's, software developers relied solely upon copyrights and trademarks to protect their work. This turned out rather well for Microsoft. Had Dan Bricklin, the creator of VisiCalc, the spreadsheet that gave people a reason to buy a personal computer, obtained a patent covering the program in 1979, Microsoft would not have been able to bring out Excel until 1999. Nor would Word or PowerPoint have appeared if the companies that had brought out predecessors obtained patent protection for their programs.

Mr. Bricklin, who has started several software companies and defensively acquired a few software patents along the way, says he, too, would cheer the abolition of software patents, which he sees as the bane of small software companies. "The number of patents you can run into with a small product is immense," he said. As for Microsoft's aggressive accumulation in recent years, he asked, "Isn't Microsoft the poster child of success without software patents?"

So why didn't Mr. Bricklin file for a patent for VisiCalc in 1979? Patents for software alone were not an option then. He consulted a patent attorney who said that the application would have to present the software within a machine and that the odds were long that the ploy would succeed. The courts regarded software as merely a collection of mathematical algorithms, tiny revelations of nature's secrets - not as an invention, and thus not patentable.

The legal environment changed not because of new legislation, but by accident. One important ruling here and another there, and without anyone fully realizing it, a new intellectual-property reality had evolved by the end of the 1980's. Now software could enjoy the extraordinary protection of a patent, protection so powerful that Thomas Jefferson believed that it should be granted in only a few select cases.

Making the best possible argument for Microsoft's newly acquired passion for patents is a job that falls to Brad Smith, the company's senior vice president and general counsel. Last week, we discussed the changing legal landscape in the 1990's. Microsoft had not taken an interest in patents in its early years because, as Mr. Smith said, "We thought we could rely on copyright." The courts changed the rules, and Microsoft had to respond like everyone else.

Why did Microsoft increase its patent-application target so sharply just last year?

"We realized we were underpatenting," Mr. Smith explained. The company had seen studies showing that other information technology companies filed about two patents for every $1 million spent on research and development. If Microsoft was spending $6 billion to $7.5 billion annually on its R&D, it would need to file at least 3,000 applications to keep up with the Joneses.

That sounds perfectly innocuous. The really interesting comparisons, though, are found not among software companies, but between software companies and pharmaceutical companies. Pharma is lucky to land a single patent after placing a multihundred-million-dollar bet and waiting patiently 10 years for it to play out. Mark H. Webbink, the deputy general counsel of Red Hat, a Linux and open-source distributor, said it was ridiculous for a software company to grab identical protection for work entailing relatively minuscule investment and trivial claims. He said of current software patents, "To give 20 years of protection does not help innovation."

If Congress passed legislation that strengthened and expanded copyright protection to include design elements as well as software's source code, formalizing the way the courts interpreted the law in the 1970's, we could bring an end to software patents and this short, unhappy blip in our patent system's time line.

Eliminating software patents would give Microsoft another chance to repair its relationship with open-source users. Recently, the company has stooped to what can only be labeled fear-mongering, telling its customers who may be tempted to switch to open-source alternatives to think twice before leaving Microsoft's protective awning.

Last year at a public briefing, Kevin R. Johnson, Microsoft's group vice president for worldwide sales, spoke pointedly of "intellectual property risk" that corporate customers should take into account when comparing software vendors. On the one side, Microsoft has an overflowing war chest and bulging patent portfolio, ready to fight - or cross-license with - any plaintiff who accuses it of patent infringement. On the other are the open-source developers, without war chest, without patents of their own to use as bargaining chips and without the financial means to indemnify their customers.

What would Jefferson think if he were around to visit Microsoft's campus, seeing software patents stacked like pyramids of cannonballs?

By RANDALL STROSS
The New York Times

List of M$ Patent Apps

More in Tux Machines

Software: LibreELEC 8.0.1 (Kodi), MKVToolnix 10.0.0, Claws Mail 3.15)

  • LibreELEC (Krypton) v8.0.1 MR
    LibreELEC (Krypton) v8.0.1 MR is available bringing Kodi v17.1, hardware support for the Raspberry Pi Zero W, improved software HEVC decoding on RPi3/CM3 hardware, driver support for Fe Pi audio cards, and support for Cirrus Logic DAC audio cards (thanks to @HiassofT). The bump to Kodi v17.1 resolves several upgrade and user-experience issues we have seen with the initial Kodi v17.0 release, and happiness is enhanced for users wearing an official LibreELEC tee-shirt or hoodie.
  • LibreELEC 8.0.1 Is Out Based on Kodi 17.1, Adds Support for Raspberry Pi Zero W
    LibreELEC developers announced the release and general availability of the first maintenance update to the major LibreELEC 8.0 stable series of the Linux-based operating system built around the Kodi open-source media center.
  • NetworkManager 1.8 to Support Handling of PINs for PKCS#11 Tokens as Secrets
    Lubomir Rintel announced that the development of the NetworkManager 1.8 major release has kicked off with the availability of the first snapshot, versioned 1.7.2, for public testing.
  • MKVToolnix 10.0.0 Open-Source MKV Manipulator Improves H.264 and H.265 Parsers
    MKVToolnix developer Moritz Bunkus released a new major branch of his popular, open-source and cross-platform MKV (Matroska) manipulation software, versioned 10.0.0.
  • Claws Mail 3.15.0
    Claws Mail is a GTK+ based, user-friendly, lightweight, and fast email client.
  • Claws Mail 3.15 Open-Source Email Client Brings New Hidden Preferences, Bugfixes
    Claws Mail, the lightweight and open-source GTK+ based email client for Linux, UNIX, and Windows operating systems, was updated recently to version 3.15.0, a maintenance update that adds new functionalities and addresses a lot of bugs. Claws Mail 3.15.0 comes more than four months after the first point release to the 3.14 series of the application, and among the new features implemented we can mention a bunch of options that should help users configure Claws Mail when opening a selected message, such as checkboxes on the Display and Summaries page of Preferences.

Games for GNU/Linux

  • It looks like we may be getting a Planescape Torment Enhanced Edition
    Back in January Beamdog was looking for testers on a new game. Now the Planescape website has a countdown timer. It's legitimate too, as tweeted by the Beamdog and the D&D twitter accounts.
  • RTS game 'Deadhold' could come to Linux, considering an experimental Beta
    The developers of Deadhold [Steam, Official Site] want to support Linux and they are thinking about releasing an experimental Linux Beta.
  • Ten amazing Linux games you can play without WINE
    Those of us who have taken up the mantle of a Linux gamer know that our path is rarely easy. For a long time, few games were released for our chosen platform. Those that were shipped riddled with bugs, compatibility issues and rarely worked out of the box. Getting games to work require using WINE and deeply complex almost arcane workarounds to force windows games to work on our quirky systems. Unfortunately, games rarely worked well and usually required hours of complex tweaking in order to get them to function properly. To top this all of, there were graphics driver problems, optimization issues, peripherals rarely worked out of the box and our lives were generally difficult.

Ubuntu-Based LXLE 16.04.2 Gets an RC Build, Promises to Be the Best Release Ever

LXLE 16.04.2 is on its way to becoming the best release ever of the Ubuntu-based distribution built around the lightweight LXDE desktop environment, and it just received a Release Candidate (RC) build. Continuing to get all the goodies from Ubuntu 16.04.2 LTS (Xenial Xerus), LXLE 16.04.2 Release Candidate is here only two weeks after the last Beta milestone, and adds quite a bunch of improvements and bug fixes. These include a reconfigured menu layout to be less cluttered for navigation, and a revamped Control Menu to act as a dynamic Control Panel. Read more

These Are the Default Wallpapers of the Ubuntu 17.04 (Zesty Zapus) Linux Distro

Ubuntu member Nathan Haines is proud to inform Softpedia about the availability of the new community wallpapers for the upcoming Ubuntu 17.04 (Zesty Zapus) operating system. Ubuntu 17.04 just got its Final Beta release at the end of last week, and now that Final Freeze stage is approaching fast, it's time for us to have a look at the default wallpapers shipping with the final release, which have been contributed by various artists and photographers from all over the world. Read more