Monday, March 07, 2005

More on Software Patents

There were several things I wanted to blog about, including several good editorials in yesterday's Post, and one from today which begins:
Remember the gag about "the three biggest lies"? They were: "The check is in the mail," "Of course I'll respect you in the morning" and -- the punch line -- "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you."

Maybe it's time to add a fourth: "We're from the private sector, so naturally we'll do it better."
William Raspberry explains why Private Doesn't Mean Better.

Worthy as all these subjects undoubtedly are, today's post is on everyone's favourite topic: Software Patents. The European Council approved a directive on Software Patents today in spite of opposition from Poland, Denmark and Portugal, and a demand by the European Parliament to re-write the directive. The directive now goes to the parliament again, but a larger majority is needed to reject or amend the directive. The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII) - the best resource I've found for information on the status of Software Patents in Europe - has some good coverage, along with a 'Horror Gallery' of European Software Patents (including a patent by Sun Microsystems on converting Windows 95 filenames to the Windows NT format, allegedly taken for the sake of annoying Microsoft).

I really did intend to write a serious post about why patenting Software is Evil (TM), but this is just so funny I had to change direction slightly. Pat-rights, a Hong Kong-based company, is threatening to sue Apple for infringing on their patent on 'Internet User Identity Verification' - somewhat ridiculously titled 'Protection of software again [sic] against unauthorized use' - United States Patent number 6,665,797.

I spent half an hour trying to figure out what, exactly, the patent covers, but am not much nearer to any conclusions than I was when I began. It appears to apply to any software-based system for authenticating users attempting to access any server to obtain 'service(s) or software product(s) or alike' (which isn't even good grammar), particularly when secure operations must be performed when payment is involved. The date on the patent is December 16, 2003; the decades of prior art seem to be irrelevant. (Granted, e-commerce hasn't been around for decades, but software-based user authentication certainly has.) The patent application says:
Conventionally, software protection methods for protecting commercial software products such as programs, multimedia software, distributed through a communication network, such as a telephone system, require a user computer to have a piece of hardware comprising decryption keys and system be installed therein, for to be authenticated by a software program running on the computer.
Are we to believe that every system prior to 2003 distributed hardware to permit access to its servers? The application also states that the invention provides a method to to discourage rightful users of the software from copying it 'to [sic] someone else' by means of a 'psychological barrier.'

Pat-rights' business model (openly stated) is to file patents, and collect 'staggering' license fees from infringers. So far, they have a grand total of 3 patents in their portfolio - one described above, one on Mobile commerce, and the third covering 'Vehicle Smart Window Safety Control.' This last is absolutely hilarious: a smart window (for the ignorant, like me) is "a window whose transmissivity / transparency can be changed electronically, i.e., by depression of a button, for stopping excessive incoming sunlight or for providing privacy, etc." The patent does not cover technology for building smart windows because Pat-rights does not have any such technology. This didn't stop them; they came to the stunning conclusion that any smart window must have a method for the user to control the transparency. Further, if the window is insufficiently transparent, this would make driving the vehicle dangerous. Therfore, the geniuses at Pat-right have patented "preventing an occupant of a moving vehicle from inadvertently touching the manual switch and causing the transmissivity / transparency of a smart window [sic] to a level dangerous for forward driving." In the 'Commercial value' section of the patent description, they proudly proclaim "While betting on a particular smart window technology may be risky, our vehicle patent provides a more secure investment opportunity, because it will always be indispensable, as long as there will be a success [sic] smart window technology in the future!"

While I'm laughing helplessly now, I'm depressed that people would consider this a viable business model. What's worse, I'm horrified that many of these patents are actually being granted by governments world-wide. The entire patent system is in urgent need of an overhaul, but no-one seems interested.

More information on the Pat-rights claim of Apple's infringement (and another affecting the iPod) are available here and here.
Hat tip: Slashdot.

1 comment:

Indu M said...

Absolutely hilarious, these RIDICULOUS patents. To actually think that they were ever accepted!

What I find even more curious is that if all Pat-rights did was to come up with such lame 'inventions', without even any R&D to back them up, then why is there a grand total of just three (not that I'm complaining)? Hopefully, there was some filter in the system that prevented other such gems from transforming into patents. Or is the world coming to such a stage that even bad ideas are in short supply?