Archive for September 2008
The Irish Software Association Awards will be be held on the 7th November 2008 in the Mansion House on Dawson Street. The ISA has extended the application period for the awards until the the 3rd of October so get your applications in now.
Awards are available in the following areas,
- Company of the Year
- New Company of the Year
- Technical Innovation
- Sales Achievement
- Partnership of the Year
You can apply here.
Today is No Software Patents Patents day. I go both ways on software patents. As a business owner I like the idea of asserting an “unfair advantage” over my competitors by coming up with some super-duper patented idea that completely locks in my market. As a software engineer I grow concerned at the land grab tactics of some companies. As a member of the world community I grow concerned at WIPO’s and latterly GATT’s attempts to enforce patent law globally over countries who are coming late to the patenting party.
So first a little history. Much of what follows is based on how English patent law developed.
Patents developed from monopolies granted by the King of England in the 1500′s to businesses such as the manufacture of commodities such as soap, leather, salt, glass and knives. Needless to say this granting of monopolies was abused by subsequent kings. This led to to revocation of patents in 1610. This was followed in 1624 by a statute of public interest that banned all monopolies barring those related to “…the sole working or making of any manner of new manufactures within this Realm to the true and first inventor“. The period of monopoly was 14 years. This was probably the first legal patent act.
The 18th century saw the addition of a requirement that a patent application include a specification of the invention. Two other clauses were added that would become relevant later, the possibility of improving an existing patent and the possibility of patenting an idea provided it those ideas “were clothed in a practical application”.
The 19th century saw much streamlining of a complex and inefficient process, resulting in the creation of a formal Patent Office and a basic patent examination scheme. In the 20th century we added novelty to the bar for entry and codified existing patents to allow some kind of searching.
Why have Patents?
But what are patents good for? Well the historical goals were to encourage innovation and invention and to promote disclosure of that invention. More disclosure leads to more rapid development of society as one invention contributes to the next. Without the patent system disclosure often led to inventor losing the ability to exploit his invention for gain, as others copied the invention without payment or license. So patents grant a monopoly to the inventor in order to prevent others from copying his invention without his/her permission.
This worked reasonably well while the inventing process was laborious (99% perspiration, 1% inspiration), time consuming and expensive. It turns out to be less useful when patents can spring from peoples’ heads in a matter of moments, this is the case with software patents.
Why are software patents problematic?
The first software patent was granted in 1962 for a memory management application. Since then there has been a explosion of software patents and business process patents. These ideas spring to life practically instantaneously or are mined out of a body of work after the fact.
Both these kinds of patents differ from those that proceeded them in that both the tests for novelty and prior art are impossibly difficult for a patent office to ascertain. In most cases this is limited to a search of the existing patent repository and/or a cursory search of some of the available literature. The problem arises with novelty due to the breadth of the field of software and the fact that the industry is changing so fast.
The problem with prior art arises because discovery of “art” is not enough, there then has to be proof that the “art” predates the current patent filing. This is actually incredibly difficult to do for even a small amount of material.
The “patent industry” which consists of the solicitors and lawyers who file patents and the national organisations that grant patents conspire to increase the problem. Both these groups of people are motivated to create more patents. The bottom line being if you give a patent lawyer 20,000 dollars you are going to get some kind of patent through fair means or foul.
All these patents are buried under piles of “claims” written in legal speak which utterly defy the best efforts of any kind of search. I challenge any person to produce all the patents related to spreadsheets that have been filed since Visicalc was created. (Note that Visicalc contains no patents, but what if it had?).
So we have patents that are poorly approved due to difficulties with novelty and prior art, an industry that depends on creating more patents and a existing repository of patents that are not searchable.
The Real Problem
All this pales into insignificance behind the real problem with patents. Patents were designed to grant specific rights to the to “the true and first inventor“. The granting of a monopoly (which a patent is) should never been done lightly in a free trade economy. The framers of original patent law believed the goals were to grant the monopoly on the basis that society as a whole benefits from the disclosure of inventions.
The real problem is we have turned patents on their heads and made them fungible, tradable commodities that can be bought and sold on the open market. To the highest bidder goes the largest pile of monopolies. Nathan Myhrvold has built a global business on this basis and Marshall Phelps has spent years at IBM and Microsoft turning their patent portfolio into cash. This aggregation of monopolies cannot be what the framers of patent law intended.
So disclosure of software inventions is not served by the patenting process (when was the last time you searched the patent archive for a solution to a programming problem). The original inventor is not served (the vast majority of software patents are filed and assigned to corporations) as he rarely retains the rights to his invention. Ssociety is not served because society has a whole derives no benefit from the patenting process.
If none of these parties are served what value are software patents?
What can we do?
The patenting system is here to stay and patenting has a real value in areas such as bringing new drugs to market where the costs are so astronomical and the failure rate so high that some method of recouping the costs must be put in place to encourage private sector involvement.
So some recommendations.
- Patents must result in execution of an idea: A patent must have a use it or loose it clause that drives an inventor to either develop the invention or license the invention. Patents not used in such a way expire in much shorter time period. A patent filing must be followed within three to five years with a description of a business articulation of the idea or the patent expires automatically
- Patents expire faster when they are transferred: Patents expiration date should be shortened (by 1 year? 5 years?) by each change of control. This will discourage patent trading and encourage the inventor or someone he sells the patent to at an early stage to exploit the idea.
- You can’t sue an infringer unless you are the inventor or executor: Only the original inventor (if he holds the patent) or the executor of the real idea can sue a potential patent infringer.
- The Patent Office manages the process: We remove the lawyers from the process by shifting much of the burden of drafting and approval to the patent office appeals and infringement proceedings are also managed by the office rather than the courts. The whole process is funded by the fees required to file. So the 20k we used to give to lawyers goes direct to the patent office.
This weeks Tuesday push is is Downloadmusic.ie, the whole web is move to localised access and download music does what it says on the tin, allows you to download music and pay for it using your mobile phone. The catalog seems to be focussed on the local irish indie scene (about which I am no expert) but you can beat there are some world beaters in there, so here ‘em first on DownloadMusic.
Knocked this search engine up for a previous post. It searches all the government websites an Entrepreneur might be interested in.
I love EI and both the development advisors I have had have been super, BUT, the web site still sucks. It has always sucked. Why does it suck? Because instead of being organised around customers needs (i.e. the Irish Entrepreneur) it is organised around EI’s needs to publish information on web.
So ten tips for EI to make its web site better,
- Make it Social: Give you HPSUs a login and create a social network around startups in Ireland. Only you know about all of us. Better still start something on Ning or Facebook or Google Groups
- Add a Blog: Add an Blog and RSS feed for breaking news that way everybody gets the news rather than the select few who make it through the venn diagram nightmare of EI mailing lists
- Give Me The Money: We want your advice for sure, but first we want your money Rapid front page “give me the money links” would take visitors right to the core of the matter, CORD, Innovation Vouchers, RTI, Equity Investment, Seed Capital and BES
- Search more than your Site: Put up a decent search engine that links all the relevant resources. Here’s one I made in ten minutes, Government Websites for Irish Entrepreneurs
- Automated Mailing Lists: Using a mailing list manager so when I register interest I can also unregister interest without requiring some manual step to remove me from the list. And, wait for it, let me choose what I’m interested in
- Show us the World: EI has fantastic resources overseas lets seem them on the web site, how do we engage with these people, what can they do for us?
- Share the Success: EI runs great events all over the world, lets hear about them online
- IE is not the only browser: Make it look right in Firefox, this is not rocket science lads. 90% of your visiting customers are using Firefox and the rest are using Safari
- Word is a proprietary format: Stop publishing documents in MS Word. There are far better and more palatable alternatives including OpenOffice, PDF, HTML etc. etc. How long before somebody publishes a new document in Office 2007 and all us poor saps with Office 2003 get screwed?
- Pick One: Pick any one of these and run with it, then ignore the rest for now
How would you improve the Enterprise Ireland web site?
BTW: All this goes double for the Irish Software Association Web site!
The other nominees are,
- Mortgages and Loans
- Our Memory Of
- Next Action
- Album Shopper
- Poll Daddy
- Decisions For Heroes
I personally use several of these applications so I look forward to finding out the winner.
All the other categories and nominees can be found at the Official Irish Web Awards web site.
Be careful what you put in your Dropbox public folder, their terms are draconian,
While you own the content contained in Your Files, you hereby grant all other Dropbox users a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable, perpetual and irrevocable right and license to use and exploit Your Files in your public folder. In addition, you hereby grant Dropbox users who have been given access to your shared folder a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable, perpetual and irrevocable right and license to use and exploit Your Files in your shared folder. You represent and warrant that you own or have the necessary licenses, rights, consents and permissions to grant these licenses.
eWrite Lite is a lightweight online editor that allows novice users to create simple web pages online and publish them to their website. It comes with added value as the creator Gordon Murray is one of the great and good from the Peoples Republic of Cork so you will get timely support if you have a problem.
I liked what I saw of eWrite Lite but I would suggest that Gordon make it free to use for up to 3 pages and then hit people with the price tag. Also 200 clams for an online editor seems a little steep, a lower price point might convert more users earlier in customers.
Still great to see people trying to do something in this space in Ireland.