If you’re like at least a quarter of the people who read my original article, “Am I evil, or is killing patents just plain fun?” a few days ago, you probably read the title of this post as “Killing parents part 2” or “Killing patients part 2.” I have to wonder how many people originally clicked it simply for that reason.
This is but one of the many responses I got, however. Overwhelmingly, people who responded to the article were in favor of at least reforming software patents, and many favored getting rid of software patents altogether. I expected at least a few responses to my challenge, but so far the only patent posted is one that hasn’t yet been granted, and I suspect won’t be.
This may be sampling bias, as there are relatively few people producing software patents, and even fewer who actually want to be. Most people don’t have any real motivation to go find them, unless they want to win the prize of forcing me to write a post about how great patents are. Regardless, the fact that not a single one of the nearly 40 thousand people (almost all software developers, and smartasses too, if I had to guess) who saw this article pointed to one good patent is fairly telling, at least to me.
Several people were skeptical that submitting prior art to Ask Patents would have any effect at all. Well, while it isn’t a landslide victory for patent reformers, there’s a tag for rejected patents that suggests that 24 patents have been denied so far, with several drawing at least partially on answers from Ask Patents. Here‘s one example from 2010:
A computerized method of analyzing weather data to improve the selection of contextually relevant communication, the method comprising: 1. Automatically receiving geolocation information of a viewer's location; 2. Receiving weather data relevant to the viewer's location; 3. Analyzing the weather data to identify a weather condition; 4. Accessing a database containing multiple available advertisements assigned to weather conditions; and 5. Selecting a communication associated with the identified weather condition based on a viewer's preference.
In English? Sending ads based on the weather. Sounds boring. Also sounds an awful lot like Weatherbug, an application which has been around since at least 2000, and about a million other weather sites. And, thankfully, the patent office agreed.
24 patents doesn’t sound like a lot, but that represents tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars likely wasted by these companies. That makes me happy! Why? Because the biggest thing I want out of all this is for companies to stop treating patents as weapons to use against competitors, and status symbols for managers with no direct involvement.
Right now, it’s a gamble, not dissimilar to the VC industry: Apply for a patent and spend a little money upfront, for the potential to make a boatload down the road. It’s a moonshot, but every once in a while they hit the jackpot. The problem is that money is made via dubiously ethical behavior like waiting for lots of people to infringe and then suing when they get successful, instead of actually creating value. At least their lawyers make a lot of money. Direct costs to U.S. businesses have been estimated at $29 billion a year, indirect costs as much as $83. This is grade-A sleezeball material.
So, will my humble daily search for prior art on relatively few patents help? Maybe, maybe not.
Either way, I’d rather do something than nothing.