Patent Pending

The End column, the Australian Industry Standard
Issue 5, 17 July 2000
by Neale Morison

I like work, but it's bad for my self-esteem. I-workers really owe it to themselves to be revoltingly, disgustingly wealthy. They should work only because it makes a stimulating change from lolling poolside with a colourful cocktail in one hand and in the other a WAP phone for checking stocks. I mean, if you're so smart, why aren't you rich? But it's beginning to look like the IPO jig is up. What to do? Maybe it's time to abandon IPO and try IP. Not Internet Protocol, Intellectual Property.

It's an old gag but a good one. When hip 13th century Venice wanted to foster creativity, inventors were rewarding for publishing their inventions with a monopoly. The idea caught on, but there was a catch. Tie me up and blow me down if it didn't turn out that you could actually stifle creativity and development by giving control of an important technology to an individual. Not only that, the people who handed out the control could make mistakes, accidentally or on purpose. The power of awarding monopolies corrupted, so in 1623, the English Parliament enacted the Statute of Monopolies abolishing monopolies, except for a Letter Patent granted for the introduction of 'any manner of new manufacture, within this realm' - a 14-year monopoly.

Patents are still around. They're meant to encourage the disclosure of information to the public by rewarding inventors through a period of exclusive rights, stimulate further research as competitors invent alternatives to patented inventions, encourage innovation and investment in patented inventions by permitting companies to recover research and development costs, encourage quick commercialisation of inventions, making them available to the public sooner, and help avoid duplicative research.

Wacko the chook, I'll take a dozen. Never mind that patents make work for lawyers. The part where the lawyers can have fun is fooling with the fuzzy distinction between an idea (which you can't patent or copyright) and the idea's implementation (which you can patent) or its expression (which you can copyright). Software is so soft. In some ways it is just an idea - symbol manipulation, algebra, mathematics, the immutable law of this and any other universe, which of course you can't invent. You can only discover what has always been there. Until 1981, it was very difficult to patent software for that reason. The decision that made software easy to patent came too late for Dan Bricklin, who invented the spreadsheet.

"I'm not rich because I invented VisiCalc," Bricklin conceded, "but I feel that I've made a change in the world. That's a satisfaction money can't buy." Poor old Dan.

As material on Dan's website shows, he isn't a fan of software patents.

Then in 1981 (Diamond vs Diehr), the court ruled that the use of a computer program in the process for curing rubber was not enough to render it unpatentable. This might not seem to all of us like an obvious turning point, but apparently the US Patent Office had been desperately waiting for any excuse to grant software patents. It seems that the Patent Office is paid for patent applications, even if they are not granted. Dan Bricklin would have had to spend upwards of $10,000 to apply for the spreadsheet patent he was unlikely to get.

Now British Telecommunications reckons it owns the hyperlink. It's a US patent of course, filed 1976, granted 1989.

For years everyone thought the GIF image file format was free, and GIFs became widespread on the Web. Then it emerged that Unisys owns the patent for the Lempel-Ziv-Welch algorithm, granted 1984, and wants royalties from anyone who distributes software using that method of compression. There are billions of files out there using the very simple LZW compression system, but some developers are refusing to support GIF-LZW rather than pay Unisys.

A company called Open Market claims, with patent 5,724,424, to have control of the intellectual property rights to secure, real-time payment using credit and debit cards over the Internet. Lycos says it has patented the spider, which covers any of the little greebies that wander around unattended following hyperlinks and indexing pages for the major search engines we all use.

Infoseek has patented distributed searching.

Amazon somehow succeeded in patenting one-click-shopping.

You have to admire these people, but are they selling themselves short? If the patent office was prepared to grant those, I'm going to try a few.

Top of the list is "A system for the gauged expulsion of gases by occasional release of a cylindrical valve, under the control of a neural network". Anybody farts, they owe me.