Ping (zestyping) wrote,

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IBM patents ideas.

This morning our development group had its weekly meeting. Before the meeting, there was some talk about patents that were going to be written. Some of the descriptions sounded like features we had vaguely discussed in earlier meetings, with plans to eventually design and develop them in the future, but nothing we had actually done yet. "Wait," I said. "Are you writing patents for things that our software can't actually do?"

That is not what patents are for. What they were talking about, basically, is patenting some ideas they had. Not any especially new ideas, either -- the equivalent of "Wouldn't it be nice to have a car with an autopilot?" Lots of people already want a car with an autopilot; there's just no patent on the books because no one has figured out how to make that safe and practical yet. The purpose of the patent system is to get people to disclose actual working inventions, not ideas. It's a trade: the public gets to find out about a marvelous invention that they might not otherwise have, and the company gets to profit from an artificial monopoly on the invention for a limited period of time.

The laws say you can't patent ideas, but the patent examiners can't tell the difference between "just an idea" and a working implementation because they aren't software developers. The IBM lawyers are essentially hired to snow them under to fool them into believing that the patent is novel when it isn't. That's an abuse of the intellectual property system and an abuse of the public trust. When you patent just an idea, the public loses. No one gains from the disclosure because everyone already knew about the idea. But now the company has a hunting license so that its lawyers can shoot down smaller companies whenever they feel like it. That's what these patents are. They're hunting licenses.

So i said, "That's immoral," and started a controversy. (*sigh* Yet another case of me not being able to keep my mouth shut.)

The response from another researcher was "Oh, yeah... it's always the interns that say that." As though still having our principles with us is a sure sign that we must be hopelessly young and naive.

There are two very common responses to these patent criticisms.

  1. "But everybody's doing it." There are lots of ridiculous patents out there -- my favourite is probably the "method of exercising a cat with a laser pointer". Yes, it's not a joke. So what? If lots of other people are abusing the laws so they can get away with murder, how does that make it right?
  2. "But if we don't do it, another company will patent it first and sue us." If the real purpose of getting a patent is to protect yourself from patent litigation and not to get a hunting license, then you should be obtaining purely defensive, open patents -- patents for the sole purpose of recording that the idea exists, that can't be used to sue people.
A few weeks ago we had a nationwide videoconference of all the summer interns with Paul Horn, the Director of IBM Research. There was an open question period. I asked a question, but i regret now that my question wasn't "Is it ethical to patent obvious ideas?" or "If it is necessary to patent obvious ideas only for defensive purposes, why doesn't IBM put the ideas in the public domain after it has defensively patented them?"

This nonsense makes me really uncomfortable about eventually working in industry research labs. I think a lot of researchers would be happier if they knew their work was not being misused in this offensive way. Maybe it's time we got together a bunch of us in the office and jointly signed a letter to Paul Horn explaining that we would all be much happier working here if our ideas were patented using open patents.

Addendum: After the ethics discussion settled down, the meeting continued with people talking about how many patents were in the works and how many patents various people in management were expecting this year. They discussed whether we would have enough, how many would come from other research groups, whether we would meet our quota. It became abundantly clear to me that the content of the patents is pretty much meaningless as long as we can proudly say that we have a lot of them. "Why don't you just trade Magic cards instead?" i muttered under my breath. I don't think my supervisor is too happy with me...

Addaddendumdum: Hey all you IBMers :) please feel welcome to post comments here. It would rock to get participation in this discussion from both inside and outside the company.

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