Patent Pending

My sister sent me a link to her on-line travel journal today, which was a great read. The system is quite nice too, it’s like a blog of sorts, and even plots your travels out on a map so visitors can see where you’ve been.

As I’m off on a bit of a trip at the end of this year, I thought I’d sign up and get a feel for it. I signed up (painless process) and clicked on the Create a Trip Journal link, only to notice a “patent pending” notice at the bottom of their form. I didn’t go any further, but the form had three buttons, one of which was disabled. One of the buttons would have been a next or continue button.

It looked like a wizard. Much like you see in a WordPress or FlySpray install, like when you create a new document in a word processing package, like when you withdraw cash from an ATM, or even like when you self-checking at an airport. Nothing new. So I wondered what the patent was about.

I emailed their support team this morning:

Hi! I just created an account on your site and was about to “Create a Trip Journal” and noticed the patent pending notice. Can I ask what type of patent you’re applying for?

I’m just wondering if this is a software patent?

If it is a software patent, could you kindly cancel my account and remove all my details from your system? I’m strongly opposed to software patents and don’t wish to use the services of a company that uses them.

If it’s not a software patent, then please just reply telling me so, and I’ll be happy to continue to use your site.

I just got a reply:

Thank you for your interest in RealTravel! It’s nice to hear from you. As per your request, I have canceled you account. Please feel free to use RealTravel for information and inspiration for your future travels!

I presume from that they have applied for a software patent, and that’s really bad.

I wonder why they feel a software patent will help them. Sure, it won’t be a disadvantage to them in itself, but they are joining a war that only the rich can win.

So what can you do to protect your ideas? Everything you create yourself is implicitly your copyright. Companies can use trade secrets and non-disclosure policies to protect assets. Software patents are there to punish developers, not the criminals who steal ideas. They punish people who write code, test, debug, work hard, and then (possibly) have it all taken away from them by a large, greedy MegaCorp.

A quick primer for those who are not familiar with software patents

You can apply for a patent that covers a methodology, for example a progress bar that tells you how far through an operation you are, or a single-click purchase, or a wizard for helping users complete a task. Nothing specific. If someone writes software that uses that idea, you can be sued by the patent owner.

So that’s good idea, no? Someone thought of that idea and you should pay them for it? Surely it protect the small people from big companies that use their ideas for their own gain; Joe Doe can sue MegaCorp Inc for their use of his idea!

No - MegaCorp Inc have 2,398,153 software patents already (this is an example), and Joe Doe probably infringes 1% of their patents (including the one that allows a user to log in - yes, they are that vague!) so MegaCorp will turn around and say “Tell you what Joe, instead of filing a counter-suit, how about you drop the law suit and just sign your software over to us and we’ll call it quits!”.

The small people never win from software patents.

Further Reading

It is interesting to compare the Google search results for “software patents are bad” and “software patents are good”.

Against Software Patents - The League for Programming Freedom, MIT

Foot Note

I have a feeling I once heard about a Joe Doe that won a software patent case against a MegaCorp Inc. Any one have any references to this?

Oh - and there is a way a small company could win in this. They would have to obtain numerous software patents and sue MegaCorps. The key to not being counter-sued is not to write your own software - that way you will never use patented software techniques!

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