A few weeks ago I found to my surprise that I'd been granted four patents. This was all the more surprising because I'd only applied for three. The patents aren't mine, of course. They were assigned to Viaweb, and became Yahoo's when they bought us. But the news set me thinking about the question of software patents generally.
Patents are a hard problem. I've had to advise most of the startups we've funded about them, and despite years of experience I'm still not always sure I'm giving the right advice.
One thing I do feel pretty certain of is that if you're against software patents, you're against patents in general. Gradually our machines consist more and more of software. Things ...view middle of the document...
" So why do so many people complain about software patents specifically?
I think the problem is more with the patent office than the concept of software patents. Whenever software meets government, bad things happen, because software changes fast and government changes slow. The patent office has been overwhelmed by both the volume and the novelty of applications for software patents, and as a result they've made a lot of mistakes.
The most common is to grant patents that shouldn't be granted. To be patentable, an invention has to be more than new. It also has to be non-obvious. And this, especially, is where the USPTO has been dropping the ball. Slashdot has an icon that expresses the problem vividly: a knife and fork with the words "patent pending" superimposed.
The scary thing is, this is the only icon they have for patent stories. Slashdot readers now take it for granted that a story about a patent will be about a bogus patent. That's how bad the problem has become.
The problem with Amazon's notorious one-click patent, for example, is not that it's a software patent, but that it's obvious. Any online store that kept people's shipping addresses would have implemented this. The reason Amazon did it first was not that they were especially smart, but because they were one of the earliest sites with enough clout to force customers to log in before they could buy something. 
We, as hackers, know the USPTO is letting people patent the knives and forks of our world. The problem is, the USPTO are not hackers. They're probably good at judging new inventions for casting steel or grinding lenses, but they don't understand software yet.
At this point an optimist would be tempted to add "but they will eventually." Unfortunately that might not be true. The problem with software patents is an instance of a more general one: the patent office takes a while to understand new technology. If so, this problem will only get worse, because the rate of technological change seems to be increasing. In thirty years, the patent office may understand the sort of things we now patent as software, but there will be other new types of inventions they understand even less.
Applying for a patent is a negotiation. You generally apply for a broader patent than you think you'll be granted, and the examiners reply by throwing out some of your claims and granting others. So I don't really blame Amazon for applying for the one-click patent. The big mistake was the patent office's, for not insisting on something narrower, with real technical content. By granting such an over-broad patent, the USPTO in effect slept with Amazon on the first date. Was Amazon supposed to say no?
Where Amazon went over to the dark side was not in applying for the patent, but in enforcing it. A lot of companies (Microsoft, for example) have been granted large numbers of preposterously over-broad patents, but they keep them mainly for defensive purposes. Like nuclear weapons, the...