If there's any lesson to be learned from Google's news-making activities these past few days, it's that software patents are a problem.
The most recent illustration, of course, is Google's $12.5 billion purchase of Motorola Mobility, clearly a strategy for gaining the latter's considerable catalog of patents.
Also continuing to make news lately is the whole Lodsys debacle, in which both Apple and now Google are having to fight off--at great expense--the attacks this patent troll is making against developers for both Android and iOS.
Then, of course, there's the recent $4.5 billion collective purchase of Nortel’s old patents by Apple, Microsoft, RIM and others, deliberately leaving Google in the dust.
Elsewhere in the mobile arena, meanwhile, we've learned that HTC is paying Microsoft $5 for every Android handset it sells, creating the crazy situation in which Linux-based Android has become a significant money-maker for Redmond.
The list goes on and on, but the bottom line is this: The mobile arena is becoming increasingly patent-focused, and that's a big problem. Now, more than ever, it's clear that software patents need to be abolished. Here are just a few reasons why.
1. Software Is Just Math
It is not possible to patent a mathematical concept, and for the very same reasons it should not be possible to patent software. Why? Because all software is fundamentally just a series of mathematical operations that are performed on inputs to generate results, whether a numerical value, text on a page or music from your speakers.
Just as it would be ridiculous to grant a patent on the algorithm for calculating “pi,” for example, so it is equally ridiculous to allow patents on software, all of which can be reduced to a set of comparable mathematical algorithms. The fact that such patents are routinely granted is a huge signal that those in charge of granting patents don't really understand what it is being patented.
2. Vast Sums Are Being Wasted
As Google's Motorola Mobility purchase vividly illustrates, patents are wildly expensive. They also take up an insane amount of time to apply for and win. Imagine if all those resources could be spent on innovation instead.
3. Only Lawyers and Megacorporations Benefit
The only beneficiaries of software patents are lawyers and giant companies like Microsoft and Oracle, which are the only ones with pockets deep enough to acquire, protect and assert them. Not coincidentally, it is often the same types of companies that are motivated to gather up patents in the first place. Since such megacorporations have often become less innovative themselves over the years, they can pursue a strategy of sitting back and collecting licensing fees on their patents instead.
4. Monopolies Are Being Expanded
Along similar lines, because it tends to be the giant corporations that can afford and are motivated to buy up patents, those very same patents tend to expand their monopolies, as they begin to claim ownership of more and more of the intellectual assets in their industry. Can that possibly be a good thing? No way.
5. Innovation Is Being Squelched
Software innovation depends heavily on the exchange and iterative development of new ideas, but such exchange is precisely what software patents are designed to prevent. Numerous patents have been granted that are excessively broad, too, making it virtually impossible to develop original software without fear of infringing.
6. Small Companies Are Being Shut Out
For all of the above reasons, you could be the most brilliant and creative software developer ever, but if you don't have pockets deep enough to pay hefty licensing fees and start a patent war chest of your own the way Google is being forced to do, you are simply out of luck. End of story.
7. Consumers Pay the Price
Small businesses suffer as a result, but ultimately the even bigger loser--as always--is the consumer. Under this system, control of ideas is falling into the hands of the companies that are big, fat and unable to innovate, simply because they have the money and no other easy way to earn more. That, in turn, means the little guys--the innovative ones--can't bring to market the next big thing that could change consumers' lives, at least not without a heavily inflated price.
It's important to note that the patent problem is not contained to the mobile world. Back in 2005 a group of companies including IBM, NEC, Novell, Philips and Sony created the Open Invention Network to prevent patent aggression against the Linux ecosystem, for example, and just recently the likes of Cisco and Twitter have joined in.
Patents are causing harm throughout the software industry, in other words. What's especially crazy about it all is that we simply don't need software patents. We have copyright, and that provides innovators with more than enough protection at a fraction of the expense.
It's time to call off this insane patent arms race, or we will all pay a steep price.