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Patent Depending

By Jason Steele
on April 13, 2011

Securing a patent for an invention is crucial in maintaining exclusive rights to your idea. For a physical invention like a toy or a machine part it serves to prevent a competitor from profiting from your invention or intellectual property (IP). However, patenting common software applications is more waving around a plastic rod and claiming to have invented a stick (actually patent #6360693 is exactly that). The end result is that your competitors can just move past you and find a newer, better stick while yours becomes obsolete fairly quickly...sometimes in a matter of days.

There are numerous organizations dedicated to stopping software patents including the Free Software Foundation (FSF), nosoftwarepatent.com, and endofpatents.org among others. They maintain that software should be free and not subject to a patent. In addition software patents discourage innovation - could a programmer's code accidentally infringe on a software patent? They clog up the US Patent Office with frivolous claims like inventing moving web pictures. And by the time most patents are granted the marketplace software technology has advanced so far making the initial "invention" ridiculously out-of-date.

One reason behind companies patenting their software is to have something to hide behind. They are depending on their patent to cover holes in their core business model rather than just competing on the basis of a superior product. It's really just a posturing PR trick, but can be used to some effect when a company drops sound bites into the marketplace implying it owns the rights to a particular software technology. It can put "concern" into the minds of customers who don't wish to be in the middle of a patent fight, even if the saber-rattling and patent in question have no leg to stand on (which is the case most of the time in today's world of evolving software IP.)

Another reason for patents is for companies whose business it is to buy up patents for the sole purpose of filing patent suits...but this is not a world most of us are concerned with.

We all agonize over defending our IP. But, for the average business software company today, it's hard to patent any unique process that you believe can be defended two years into the future in the midst of a whirlwind of change. And, it's probably a waste of time and money that could be dedicated to actually "competing".

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