Language Selection

English French German Italian Portuguese Spanish

Why Bill Gates Wants 3,000 New Patents

Filed under
Microsoft

"EXCITING," "uninteresting" and "not exciting" don't seem like technical terms. But they show up a lot in United States patent application No. 20,050,160,457, titled "Annotating Programs for Automatic Summary Generation." It seems to be about baseball. The inventors have apparently come up with software that can detect the portions of a baseball broadcast that contain what they call "excited speech," as well as hits (what I call "excited ball") and automatically compile those portions into a highlights reel.

If the patent is granted, after a review process that is likely to take three years, it will be assigned to the inventors' employer, Microsoft.

The staff of the United States Patent and Trademark Office has been deluged with paperwork from Microsoft of late. It was one year ago that the company's chairman, Bill Gates, announced plans to pick up the pace, raising its goal of patent applications submitted annually to 3,000 from 2,000. The company is right on target.

It must feel like a bit of a stretch to come up with 60 fresh, nonobvious patentable ideas week in, week out. Perhaps that is why this summer's crop includes titles like "System and Method for Creating a Note Related to a Phone Call" and "Adding and Removing White Space From a Document."

I have not seen the software in use. But if I were in a position to make a ruling, and even if I accepted the originality claim on its face, I would process these swiftly: Rejected.

Microsoft's other pending applications - 3,368 at last count - should receive the same treatment. And while tidying up, let's also toss out the 3,955 patents that Microsoft has already been issued.

Perhaps that is going too far. Certainly, we should go through the lot and reinstate the occasional invention embodied in hardware. But patent protection for software? No. Not for Microsoft, nor for anyone else.

Others share this conviction. "Abolishing software patents would be a very good thing," says Daniel Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation, a nonprofit group in New York that challenges what it calls "wrongly issued" patents. Mr. Ravicher, a patent lawyer himself, says he believes that the current system actually impedes the advance of software technology, at the same time that it works quite nicely to enrich patent holders. That's not what the framers of the Constitution wanted, he said.

Earlier this month, the European Parliament rejected a measure, nicknamed the "software patent directive," that would have uniformly removed restrictions on those patents among European Union members.

All software published in the United States is protected by strong copyright and trademark protection. Microsoft Excel, for example, cannot be copied, nor can its association with Microsoft be removed. But a patent goes well beyond this. It protects even the underlying concepts from being used by others - for 20 years.

As recently as the 1970's, software developers relied solely upon copyrights and trademarks to protect their work. This turned out rather well for Microsoft. Had Dan Bricklin, the creator of VisiCalc, the spreadsheet that gave people a reason to buy a personal computer, obtained a patent covering the program in 1979, Microsoft would not have been able to bring out Excel until 1999. Nor would Word or PowerPoint have appeared if the companies that had brought out predecessors obtained patent protection for their programs.

Mr. Bricklin, who has started several software companies and defensively acquired a few software patents along the way, says he, too, would cheer the abolition of software patents, which he sees as the bane of small software companies. "The number of patents you can run into with a small product is immense," he said. As for Microsoft's aggressive accumulation in recent years, he asked, "Isn't Microsoft the poster child of success without software patents?"

So why didn't Mr. Bricklin file for a patent for VisiCalc in 1979? Patents for software alone were not an option then. He consulted a patent attorney who said that the application would have to present the software within a machine and that the odds were long that the ploy would succeed. The courts regarded software as merely a collection of mathematical algorithms, tiny revelations of nature's secrets - not as an invention, and thus not patentable.

The legal environment changed not because of new legislation, but by accident. One important ruling here and another there, and without anyone fully realizing it, a new intellectual-property reality had evolved by the end of the 1980's. Now software could enjoy the extraordinary protection of a patent, protection so powerful that Thomas Jefferson believed that it should be granted in only a few select cases.

Making the best possible argument for Microsoft's newly acquired passion for patents is a job that falls to Brad Smith, the company's senior vice president and general counsel. Last week, we discussed the changing legal landscape in the 1990's. Microsoft had not taken an interest in patents in its early years because, as Mr. Smith said, "We thought we could rely on copyright." The courts changed the rules, and Microsoft had to respond like everyone else.

Why did Microsoft increase its patent-application target so sharply just last year?

"We realized we were underpatenting," Mr. Smith explained. The company had seen studies showing that other information technology companies filed about two patents for every $1 million spent on research and development. If Microsoft was spending $6 billion to $7.5 billion annually on its R&D, it would need to file at least 3,000 applications to keep up with the Joneses.

That sounds perfectly innocuous. The really interesting comparisons, though, are found not among software companies, but between software companies and pharmaceutical companies. Pharma is lucky to land a single patent after placing a multihundred-million-dollar bet and waiting patiently 10 years for it to play out. Mark H. Webbink, the deputy general counsel of Red Hat, a Linux and open-source distributor, said it was ridiculous for a software company to grab identical protection for work entailing relatively minuscule investment and trivial claims. He said of current software patents, "To give 20 years of protection does not help innovation."

If Congress passed legislation that strengthened and expanded copyright protection to include design elements as well as software's source code, formalizing the way the courts interpreted the law in the 1970's, we could bring an end to software patents and this short, unhappy blip in our patent system's time line.

Eliminating software patents would give Microsoft another chance to repair its relationship with open-source users. Recently, the company has stooped to what can only be labeled fear-mongering, telling its customers who may be tempted to switch to open-source alternatives to think twice before leaving Microsoft's protective awning.

Last year at a public briefing, Kevin R. Johnson, Microsoft's group vice president for worldwide sales, spoke pointedly of "intellectual property risk" that corporate customers should take into account when comparing software vendors. On the one side, Microsoft has an overflowing war chest and bulging patent portfolio, ready to fight - or cross-license with - any plaintiff who accuses it of patent infringement. On the other are the open-source developers, without war chest, without patents of their own to use as bargaining chips and without the financial means to indemnify their customers.

What would Jefferson think if he were around to visit Microsoft's campus, seeing software patents stacked like pyramids of cannonballs?

By RANDALL STROSS
The New York Times

List of M$ Patent Apps

More in Tux Machines

Tizen News

OSS Leftovers

  • How Open Source Tech Helps Feds Solve Workforce Turnover Issues
    Just as a mainframe from decades ago might be ready for retirement, the IT staff who originally procured and installed that system might also be preparing for a new phase in their lives. It’s up to the current and next generation of government IT employees to prepare for that eventuality, but there are indications they may not be ready, despite evidence that older IT professionals are retiring or will soon be leaving their positions. Unfortunately, a skills gap exists even among younger generation IT workers. Agencies are scrambling to find personnel with expertise in cloud service management, cybersecurity, technical architecture and legacy technologies, such as common business-oriented language (COBOL) and mainframes, among other areas. At the same time that many workers are getting ready to retire, leaving behind a wealth of knowledge, many younger IT professionals are struggling to gain the knowledge they will need to take their agencies into the future.
  • Introducing Fn: “Serverless must be open, community-driven, and cloud-neutral”
    Fn, a new serverless open source project was announced at this year’s JavaOne. There’s no risk of cloud lock-in and you can write functions in your favorite programming language. “You can make anything, including existing libraries, into a function by packaging it in a Docker container.” We invited Bob Quillin, VP for the Oracle Container Group to talk about Fn, its best features, next milestones and more.
  • Debian seminar in Yokohama, 2017/11/18
    I had attended to Tokyo area debian seminar #157. The day’s special guest is Chris Lamb, the Debian Project Leader in 2017. He had attended to Open Compliance Summit, so we invited him as our guest.
  • Overclock Labs bets on Kubernetes to help companies automate their cloud infrastructure
    Overclock Labs wants to make it easier for developers to deploy and manage their applications across clouds. To do so, the company is building tools to automate distributed cloud infrastructure and, unsurprisingly, it is betting on containers — and specifically the Kubernetes container orchestration tools — to do this. Today, Overclock Labs, which was founded two years ago, is coming out of stealth and announcing that it raised a $1.3 million seed round from a number of Silicon Valley angel investors and CrunchFund — the fund that shares a bit of its name and history with TechCrunch but is otherwise completely unaffiliated with the blog you are currently reading.
  • MariaDB Energizes the Data Warehouse with Open Source Analytics Solution
    MariaDB® Corporation, the company behind the fastest growing open source database, today announced new product enhancements to MariaDB AX, delivering a modern approach to data warehousing that enables customers to easily perform fast and scalable analytics with better price performance over proprietary solutions. MariaDB AX expands the highly successful MariaDB Server, creating a solution that enables high performance analytics with distributed storage and parallel processing, and that scales with existing commodity hardware on premises or across any cloud platform. With MariaDB AX, data across every facet of the business is transformed into meaningful and actionable results.
  • AT&T Wants White Box Routers with an Open Operating System [Ed: AT&T wants to openwash its surveillance equipment]
    AT&T says it’s not enough to deploy white box hardware and to orchestrate its networks with the Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP) software. “Each individual machine also needs its own operating system,” writes Chris Rice, senior vice president of AT&T Labs, Domain 2.0 Architecture, in a blog post. To that end, AT&T announced its newest effort — the Open Architecture for a Disaggregated Network Operating System (dNOS).
  • Intel Lands Support For Vector Neural Network Instructions In LLVM
  • p2k17 Hackathon report: Antoine Jacoutot on ports+packages progress
  • GCC 8 Feature Development Is Over
    Feature development on the GCC 8 compiler is over with it now entering stage three of its development process. SUSE's Richard Biener announced minutes ago that GCC 8 entered stage three development, meaning only general bug fixing and documentation updates are permitted.
  • 2018 Is The Year For Open Source Software For The Pentagon
  • Open-source defenders turn on each other in 'bizarre' trademark fight sparked by GPL fall out
    Two organizations founded to help and support developers of free and open-source software have locked horns in public, betraying a long-running quarrel rumbling mostly behind the scenes. On one side, the Software Freedom Law Center, which today seeks to resolve licensing disputes amicably. On the other, the Software Freedom Conservancy, which takes a relatively harder line against the noncompliance of licensing terms. The battleground: the, er, US Patent and Trademark Office. The law center has demanded the cancellation of a trademark held by the conservancy.
  • Open Source Underwater Glider: An Interview with Alex Williams, Grand Prize Winner
    Alex Williams pulled off an incredible engineering project. He developed an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) which uses a buoyancy engine rather than propellers as its propulsion mechanism and made the entire project Open Source and Open Hardware.

Programming Leftovers

Security: Linux, Free Software Principles, Microsoft and Intel

  • Some 'security people are f*cking morons' says Linus Torvalds
    Linux overlord Linus Torvalds has offered some very choice words about different approaches security, during a discussion about whitelisting features proposed for version 4.15 of the Linux kernel. Torvalds' ire was directed at open software aficionado and member of Google's Pixel security team Kees Cook, who he has previously accused of idiocy. Cook earned this round of shoutiness after he posted a request to “Please pull these hardened usercopy changes for v4.15-rc1.”
  • Free Software Principles
    Ten thousand dollars is more than $3,000, so the motives don't add up for me. Hutchins may or may not have written some code, and that code may or may not have been used to commit a crime. Tech-literate people, such as the readers of Linux Magazine, understand the difference between creating a work and using it to commit a crime, but most of the media coverage – in the UK, at least – has been desperate to follow the paradigm of building a man up only to gleefully knock him down. Even his achievement of stopping WannaCry is decried as "accidental," a word full of self-deprecating charm when used by Hutchins, but which simply sounds malicious in the hands of the Daily Mail and The Telegraph.
  • New warning over back door in Linux
    Researchers working at Russian cyber security firm Dr Web claim to have found a new vulnerability that enables remote attackers to crack Linux installations virtually unnoticed. According to the anti-malware company, cyber criminals are getting into the popular open-source operating system via a new backdoor. This, they say, is "indirect evidence" that cyber criminals are showing an increasing interest in targeting Linux and the applications it powers. The trojan, which it's calling Linux.BackDoor.Hook.1, targets the library libz primarily. It offers compression and extraction capabilities for a plethora of Linux-based programmes.
  • IN CHATLOGS, CELEBRATED HACKER AND ACTIVIST CONFESSES COUNTLESS SEXUAL ASSAULTS
  • Bipartisan Harvard panel recommends hacking [sic] safeguards for elections
     

    The guidelines are intended to reduce risks in low-budget local races as well as the high-stakes Congressional midterm contests next year. Though most of the suggestions cost little or nothing to implement and will strike security professionals as common sense, notorious attacks including the leak of the emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta, have succeeded because basic security practices were not followed.  

  • Intel Chip Flaws Leave Millions of Devices Exposed
     

    On Monday, the chipmaker released a security advisory that lists new vulnerabilities in ME, as well as bugs in the remote server management tool Server Platform Services, and Intel’s hardware authentication tool Trusted Execution Engine. Intel found the vulnerabilities after conducting a security audit spurred by recent research. It has also published a Detection Tool so Windows and Linux administrators can check their systems to see if they're exposed.