Ridiculous Patents
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Ridiculous Patents

In a previous rant I talked about the insane idea of allowing software patents. The European Commission is currently considering a proposal to that respect. In the US software patents are currently allowed. This has led to companies patenting the most basic of ideas, which any rational person would never think to be possible to be patented. I skimmed a few dozen software patents awarded to Microsoft, and quickly found the following ones I would say should never have been awarded, on the grounds that not only they are too broad and too basic, but also that they have been used by many people in the past, so they simply are not innovations but rip-offs. Anyway, here's the list, just to give you an idea of what will happen when software patents will be allowed in Europe.

  • Patent 6,594,674 System and method for creating multiple files from a single source file. This patent covers packing a couple of files together into one package, from which you can extract individual files. This patent has been awarded July 15, 2003. Compression software (such as WinZip), around as long as I can remember, does exactly this.
  • Patent 6,604,008 Scoring based upon goals achieved and subjective elements. This patent covers scoring in computer games that does not only award points for achieving goals but also for performing feats. The patent has been granted August 5, 2003. The scoring system it describes is very common in, for instance, computer roleplaying games (such as Neverwinter Nights and Morrowind). One game that uses exactly such a system is The Elder Scrolls: Arena, released in 1993.
  • Patent 6,606,618 Method for optimizing the performance of a database. This patent covers using (automated) numerical key-files for database systems that contain text or objects. The patent has been granted August 12, 2003. Everyone who has worked with databases knows using numerical key files is a must if you want to efficiently access data. Everyone generates numerical key files if the data does not contain natural numerical keys. This is basic computer science that has been taught in the earliest courses on datastructures.
  • Patent 6,606,101 Information pointers. This patent covers the use of "popup notes" when you move your mouse pointer over an object on the screen. It has been granted August 12, 2003. If a program doesn't show popup notes, I consider this bad interfacing.
  • Patent 6,618,857 Method and system for installing software on a computer system. This patent covers installing software on a computer system whereby more than one file is copied to the system and files that already exist are only overwritten in special circumstances. The patent has been granted September 9, 2003. Virtually all programs nowadays are installed in this manner (often generating the installation package using Installshield) and this method has been used for more than a decade.

I assume a complete lack of rationality and critical insight on the part of the patent office administrators has been the cause that Microsoft now can sue anyone who includes in his or her software file packages, a game scoring system, a database, popup notes and/or an easy installation method.

While I have only included Microsoft patents (and believe me, they hold many more often ridiculous patents; I only listed a few recent ones that were easy to explain), it is certainly not Microsoft alone that is trying to abuse the patent system by raking in a portfolio of patents for very common tasks. Patent wars are raging (as demonstrated by the fact that these examples have all been granted recently). Big companies are flooding patent offices with applications for any basic computer-related idea they can think of. It is not about patenting new inventions, but about trying to gain exclusive rights to ideas that until recently have been public property. It is law-endorsed stealing of the fruits of other people's intellect that were free for anyone to use. And by what rights do these companies lay claims on public ideas? Only by being the wealthiest, being the greediest and being the one that employs the most lawyers.

The behemoths fighting the wars are the only winners here. The casualties are the small and medium-sized software developers, who are practically forbidden by law to practice their arts, and the software users (including you), who will have to be content with the expensive and mediocre software delivered by the behemoths, who won't have any reason anymore to compete by delivering quality and being innovative.

September 10, 2003

© 2003 by Pieter Spronck