myths and facts of s/w patents

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In his new post on software patents Paul Graham seems to validates patents saying

"Hockey allows checking. It's part of the game. If your team refuses to do it, you simply lose. So it is in business. Under the present rules, patents are part of the game."

He mentions the following benefit of patents

"Before patents, people protected ideas by keeping them secret. If secrecy were the only protection for ideas, companies wouldn't just have to be secretive with other companies; they'd have to be secretive internally. This would encourage what is already the worst trait of big companies." "Businesses would become more secretive to compensate, and in some fields this might get ugly."

But he also (mainly in starup domain) says that Software Patents doesn't matter much because

"software is so complicated that patents by themselves are not worth very much"

"startups rarely attack big companies head-on"

"Good hackers care a lot about matters of principle, and they are highly mobile. If a company starts misbehaving, smart people won't work there."

and advise startups to ignore patent infringements

"Most innovation in the software business happens in startups, and startups should simply ignore other companies' patents. At least, that's what we advise, and we bet money on that advice."

and also advise them to apply for patents either for defense or for mating dance with acquirers

"We do advise the companies we fund to apply for patents, but not so they can sue competitors. Successful startups either get bought or grow into big companies. If a startup wants to grow into a big company, they should apply for patents to build up the patent portfolio they'll need to maintain an armed truce with other big companies. If they want to get bought, they should apply for patents because patents are part of the mating dance with acquirers."

His this way of establishing tautology is quite interesting

"when you're saying something that Richard Stallman and Bill Gates would both agree with, you must be perilously close to tautologies."

But I was brought up in the open/free (source) world with the 'myth' that patents are evil. The bible strongly said that.

"Software patents are the software project equivalent of land mines: each design decision carries a risk of stepping on a patent, which can destroy your project." [link]

PG and RMS both are gurus, but i somehow feel convinced with PG's views. I just assume that these are views of a practical and an extremist gurus. I cannot compare these views as they are made on different planes.

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One Response to “myths and facts of s/w patents”

  1. joey5 Says:

    PG is usually spot on, but this essay falls way off. Patents *do* hurt small startups. I know from firsthand experience. Us small guys don’t have the resources to fight when threatened with litigation; its either comply and cough up licensing fees (which would often put us out of business) or fold and pursue some other product.

    Software patents are killing innovation. I don’t know how much more practical you can get than that.

    Until you’ve been whacked in the face with a C&D or litigation, I’m sure PG’s perspective seems reasonable.

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