The other day I re-discovered this post by Joel Spolsky on Hacker News, entitled “Victory Lap for Ask Patents.” I saw it when he originally posted it a while back, but it didn’t resonate with me at the time.
But re-reading it today, I realized how great an opportunity we, as software developers, have to force patent reform by actively contributing to this project. Ask Patents, if you haven’t heard of it, is a StackExchange site where you can ask questions about patents, or, in my case, respond to requests for prior art that invalidate an overly-broad patent. In my case, I focus on software patents.
I can hear what you’re thinking.
That sounds fucking boring
I know, right? But actually, I’ve found it to be quite a fun little puzzle to decrypt the legalese used by patent lawyers to try to get away with ridiculous patents. Here’s an example patent claim:
“A method comprising:
- generating, using a processor, time-based event boundaries detected in a plurality of images;
- computing inter-event durations;
- grouping events into clusters based on the inter-event durations; and
- validating, using a rule-based system, that each event belongs to an associated cluster based on event level content based features.”
Short version: a photo album that groups your photos by the time they were taken.
How hard do you think it was to find examples of prior art? (Hint: it wasn’t)
If you’re still wondering what I’m going on about, then perhaps a different motivator is called for. If you think this shit is boring and pedantic, how do you think someone at the USPTO feels when they have to read it day in and day out, and formally parse and research it to decide whether it should stand?
Let me put this another way – wouldn’t you rather those working for the USPTO were spending their time on legitimate patents? On getting a bunch of those “patent pending” labels off of everything we buy? On crippling the patent trolls, who raise the cost of doing business for anyone who gets successful enough to trespass on one of their dubious “works of genius”?
Well, you can help. Every minute you save the USPTO is another minute they can spend doing things that actually matter. I’m going to start doing it every day. I’ve already done 6 in the last hour. Time will tell whether my contributions actually do anything, but I suspect that, given how unglamorous the work is and how few people generally comment, even a little bit will be appreciated.
So how does this lead to patent reform? My hope is that the community can shred a lot of these useless patents before they take any brain cycles away from a qualified researcher. And if it happens enough, it will start to become clear to everyone involved that the vast majority of software patents are bullshit.
It might sound like a bad, or at least contradictory, idea coming from a programmer, but I genuinely hope (and have some reasons to believe) software patents go the way of the dodo in the next decade.
In fact, I would go so far as to wager the following. I will bet, on pain of writing an entire blog post dedicated to why patents are good, that no one reading this article can find a software patent granted in the last year that actually should exist. The requirements for a good patent are:
Some software patents may technically be novel, but I’ve yet to find one that I thought was non-obvious. Maybe someone will be able to enlighten me.
Want to help some more? Take it to Twitter with the hashtag #patentreform!