Two Worlds of Software Patents

I recently participated in Santa Clara Law School’s great conference on “Solutions to the Software Patent Problem.” The presentations were interesting and thoughtful, and…short! A total of 34 presentations in one day, including some Q&A from the audience. Op-Eds from the conference are continuing to appear at Wired Magazine’s blog, and Groklaw has a fairly thorough article summarizing the presentations.

I want to focus this post on an epiphany I had at the conference, one that is alluded to at the end of the Groklaw article. In short, there appear to be at least two world views of software patenting (there is probably a third view, relating to natural rights and property, but I’m going to put that one to the side). More after the jump.

On the one hand, you have the utilitarians, who believe that the costs of patenting might be worth the benefits of patenting. Or maybe they aren’t, but that’s the important question to them: to what extent does allowing software patent drive innovation? The Groklaw article implies that this group is primarily large corporate interests, but I think that’s too restrictive. For example, I’m unabashadly a member of this world view, and my affinity is toward start-ups.

On the other hand, you have what I’ll call the friends of free software (more fully called FOSS – Free and Open-source Software). These individuals believe that software is thought, and math, and that no one can own it. I’ve found that some take this view to the extreme – they have no problem with a circuit that performs the same thing as software, so long as it is performed in hardware. Members of this group believe that software patents should be unpatentable as a matter of principle, and that by allowing any kind of software patenting bad things will happen to individual programmers, to free software, and in the world generally. As further evidence that the divide is not just about large corporate interests, there are plenty of people who subscribe to this world view that started large successful companies.

Now, here is the epiphany – I belive that bridging these two worlds is  possible if one believes that any software patent should issue. (If you agree that software patents can never satisfy utilitarian ends, then you can bridge the worlds. Benson Revisited  by Pamela Samuelson is a great example of such a bridge.)

Believe me, I tried to make the leap. I wrote a lengthy post at Groklaw that garnered more than 1300 comments where I tried to better understand the free software view and they tried to understand mine.

Surely, I thought, they might see that there are some lines that can be drawn that would allow for inventive software innovations. Surely, I thought, we can discuss some tweaks that would help alleviate the deleterious effects of low quality patents but save the system for one good software patent.

Surely, they thought, I would see how software patents are a bane to society, and must just go. Surely, they thought, I would see that there is no such thing as a good software patent.

The problem is that the goals of each world view are just too different. The following exchange from the Santa Clara conference between John Duffy and Richard Stallman drives the point home. I’m paraphrasing the statements, of course:

[Stallman's keynote]: Companies don’t need software patents to innovate – just look at the rise of Google. [later] My proposal is that we can enforce software patents in standalone devices but not in general purpose computers.

[Duffy's talk]: I’m glad Stallman points out that software companies don’t need patents – I think we agree on a solution. My proposal is that if an inventor is not induced to invent because of the prospect of a patent, then the invention is obvious and no patent should issue.[later]Stallman’s proposal, though, is a kludge – a patch on the system rather than an elegant solution like redefining obviousness.

[Stallman in response to Duffy]:It doesn’t matter if the patent induced the invention, it is still a bad patent. It may actually be worse, because now it can’t be invalidated. My solution is not a kludge, because it handles the very real problem of software patents and eliminates it.

[Duffy]: But you have to look at the ex ante incentive to invent. If we don’t allow patent enforcement, inventions might not happen that would have happened with the patent system.

[Stallman]: It’s OK if we don’t get those inventions. Maybe
they will be developed, maybe they won’t, maybe they will take longer, but the harm to any future software programmer/company is never justified by encouraging that investment with a patent.

And there you have the core of the problem. Utilitarians like Duffy (and me) believe that it is worth driving the ex ante incentive to innovate, but trying to hone the system to minimize collateral damage. Free software folks like Stallman (and probably 99% of Groklaw readers) believe that the collateral damage never justifies the ex ante incentive in a practical way.

You can see the core of these arguments in the debate about whose invention is elegant and whose is a kludge. Duffy believes that tweaking inducement to invent is elegant because that’s what utilitarianism is all about. Just barring patents on general purpose computers is a patch, because there might be valuable innovations in the use of general purpose computers that are worth encouraging. Investment in standalone software might decline if there is not general purpose application at the end of the rainbow, especially in the age of smartphones.

On the other hand, Stallman believes that barring enforcement on general purpose computers is elegant, because it eliminates the most harmful effects to programmers. He believes that changing obviousness is a kludge, because it refuses to acknowledge that even the patents that come from the new rules will be bad for society. As Stallman commented to me after the conference: “There may be weak patents, and there may be strong patents, but they are all bad patents.”

So, where does that leave us? I don’t know, but I have to think it is helpful to understand why we can’t seem to understand each other. I’m not sure where it leaves the utilitarians. They seem to be winning in policy circles, as this recent speech by PTO director David Kappos shows, but utilitarians can’t even seem to agree among themselves the best course of action with software patents. Perhaps this recognition will aid those with the free software view to hone their arguments in a way that will get more policy traction – by making their same important points, but somehow framing them in a langauge utilitarians will hear. Samuelson’s Benson Revisited article is a good example.