Zdnet has an interesting article  about Microsoft and the patent system. Microsoft recently indicated  that they thought the patent system needed serious reform, they then went and patented a heap more obvious or non original ideas apparently to prove their case that the patent system needs reform. I suspect Microsoft’s idea of reform is a system where they get free run, but where people challenging their patents or people suing them for infringement don’t. Microsoft has patented 3000 “ideas” so far this year alone, so I can see why they patent system needs reform, but it’s not until you consider that it costs Microsoft $100,000,000 a year to defend itself in patent cases that you get an idea of why they might think it needs reform.
To reform the patent process isn’t that hard, the problem stems from the overworked and underpaid folks working at the patent office who don’t have knowledge or experience in all the fields they are being asked to rule on. What should happen is an industry consortium of experts in each field should be created. And all patents for their field should have to pass though those experts before being granted. This would ensure that people actually knowledgeable about a field would be making the decision that something is innovative and non obvious. There should also be some sort of period just before approval when applications are made available in a public forum and the public get a chance to show prior art or other reasons why a patent should not be granted. The experts should then have to review any relevant evidence that came up before making the final decision. Zdnet’s idea that frequent offenders be banned from the table is a good one also.
It isn’t perfect, but it would be much better then what we have now. I have no idea if anything I’ve written offends any patents out there and it’s likely that I won’t know until the holder takes me to court and that worries me a lot as I’m just a little guy plodding along in the trenches. This doesn’t discuss the need or implications of software patents directly, I personally think copyright is all that is needed for software, just like print media, movies and music. But the problems detailed above are 100 times worse when applied to as intricate and ill defined a process as “software".