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

today's howtos

icons and Themes: Vamox , Ashes, and DamaDamas

  • Vamox Icons Offers Three Color Variants for Linux Desktop
    Vamox icons were designed as a university thesis project by Emiliano Luciani and Darío Badagnani in 2008. The objective was to design a interface of a distro that the university could use for learning about design thin free software, From start these icons were developed for Ubuntu. Now these icons has three variants blue, orange and red, which are compatible with most of the Linux desktop environments such as: Gnome, Unity, Cinnamon, Mate, Xfce and so on. We have added these icons to our PPA for Ubuntu/Linux Mint and other related distributions, If you are using distribution other than Ubuntu/Linux Mint/its derivatives then download icons and install it in one of these "~/.icons" or "/usr/share/icons/" location. If you find any missing icons or problem with this icon set then report it to creator via linked page and hopefully it will get fixed soon.
  • Ashes Is A Light Theme For Your Linux Desktop
    Ashes theme is based on Adapta and Flat-Plat theme but it includes the mixture of blue and pink color scheme with gray search entity. Usually derived themes always try to make better and enhanced version by the person who forked it, to make desktop much perfect and elegant, same thing goes for this theme, it looks and feels great on almost every desktop. Mainly it is designed to work in Unity and Gnome desktop but it can also work in other desktops such as Cinnamon, Mate, and so on. For the Gnome desktop creator have added the dark title-bar/header-bar support, so you can enable Global-Dark-Theme using Gnome-Tweak-Tool, if you prefer dark title-bars. If you are using distribution other than Ubuntu/Linux Mint/its derivatives then download theme from here and install it "~/.themes" or "/usr/share/themes/" location. If you find any kind of bug or issue within this theme then report it to creator and since this theme is in active development hopefully it will be fixed soon.
  • DamaDamas Icons Looks Great And At The Same Time Give Windows Flavor
    If you have been searching for Windows icons for your Linux desktop then you are at the right place. The DamaDamas icons are from Pisi GNU/Linux and available for every Linux distribution, these icons give Windows look and feel to your desktop. There isn't much information available for these icons but the icons are SVG format and there are almost 4000+ icons packed in very fairly sized archive. We have added these icons to our PPA and these icons are compatible with almost every desktop environment such as: Gnome, Unity, Cinnamon, Xfce, Mate, KDE Plasma and so on. If you find any missing icons or problem with this icon set then report it to creator via linked page and hopefully it will get fixed soon.

Ubuntu MATE 17.10 Alpha 2, Solus 3, OpenMandriva Lx 3.02, and More

KDE: QtWebEngine on FreeBSD, KDE PIM, Akademy 2017, Craft, Accessibility, Comics Manager for Krita, Progress on Kube

  • QtWebEngine on FreeBSD
    Tobias and Raphael pushed the button today to push QtWebEngine into FreeBSD ports. This has been a monumental effort, because the codebase is just .. ugh. Not meant for third-party consumption, let’s say. There are 76 patches needed to get it to compile at all. Lots of annoying changes to make, like explaining that pkg-config is not a Linux-only technology. Nor is NSS, or Mesa, while #include is, in fact, Linux-only. Lots of patches can be shared with the Chromium browser, but it’s a terrible time-sink nonetheless.
  •  
  • KDE PIM in Randa 2017
    Randa Meetings is an annual meeting of KDE developers in a small village in Swiss Alps. The Randa Meetings is the most productive event I ever attended (since there’s nothing much else to do but hack from morning until night and eat Mario’s chocolate :-)) and it’s very focused – this year main topic is making KDE more accessible. Several KDE PIM developers will be present as well – and while we will certainly want to hear other’s input regarding accessibility of Kontact, our main goal in Randa will be to port away from KDateTime (the KDE4 way of handling date and time in software) to QDateTime (the Qt way of handling date and time). This does not sound very interesting, but it’s a very important step for us, as afterward, we will finally be free of all legacy KDE4 code. It is no simple task, but we are confident we can finish the port during the hackfest. If everything goes smoothly, we might even have time for some more cool improvements and fixes in Kontact ;-)
  • Services Collaborating Openly at Akademy 2017
    At the recently concluded Akademy 2017 in the incredibly hot but lovely Almería, yours truly went and did something a little silly: Submitted both a talk (which got accepted) and hosted a BoF, both about Open Collaboration Services, and the software stack which KDE builds to support that API in the software we produce. The whole thing was amazing. A great deal of work, very tiring, but all 'round amazing. I even managed to find time to hack a little bit on Calligra Gemini, which was really nice. This blog entry collects the results from the presentation and the BoF. I realise this is quite long, but i hope that you stick with it. In the BoF rundown, i have highlighted the specific results, so hopefully you'll be able to skim-and-detail-read your specific interest areas ;)
  • Akademy 2017 - A wonderful experience
    Akademy 2017 was such a great experience, that I would love to share with you all in this post.
  • Akademy 2017 - Recap
    Last month I had opportunity to visit the Almería, Spain for Akademy 2017. Akademy 2017 is KDE’s annual world summit. Akademy makes it possible to meet the felow KDE contributors, some of whom you only know with their IRC nicknames (Yes, I am not old enough to know every contributors yet :p). Here is few things I did at the Akademy 2017.
  • My Adventures on Crafting part III – Craft Atelier
    Once upon a time, I start o use Craft, an amazing tool inside KDE that does almost all the hard work to compile KDE Applications on Windows and MacOS. Thanks to the great work of Hannah since last year Randa Meetings, Craft is becoming a great tool. Using all the power of Python, I started to be able to work on the deploy of AtCore for Windows.
  • Why YOU care about accessibility, and can help!
    Accessibility (a11y for short) seems like a niche area of concern for many people. I was thinking about this recently on a hot morning in Spain, walking to the bus station with my wheeled luggage. The sidewalks are thoughtfully cut out for wheelchairs -- and those with luggage! and the kids riding skateboards, and...... the rest of us.
  • Writing a comics manager for Krita
    Those who know me, or at the least know my history with Krita is that one of the prime things I personally want to use Krita for is making comics. So back in the day one of the things I did was make a big forum post discussing the different parts of making a comic and how different software solves it. One of the things about making a comic is that is a project. Meaning, it is big and unwieldy, with multiple files and multiple disciplines. You need to be able to write, to draw, to ink, to color. And you need to be able to do this consistently.
  • Progress on Kube
    We’ve been mostly focusing on ironing out UX problems all over the place. It turns out, when writing desktop applications using QtQuick you’ll be ending up with a lot of details to figure out for yourself.