Lessons to be learned from the social media patent war

Some day someone will patent the sudo command

By now there is growing evidence that software patents do not benefit anyone. Really, software developers, software experts, venture capitalists, and industry insiders, everyone who is actually involved in producing software knows that software patents are a blight to the industry. The only ones who seem to benefit are patent lawyers and patent trolls.

Nothing exemplifies the stupidity of software patents better than the legal dispute between Facebook and Yahoo. No matter what is your general opinion of Facebook, anyone has to admit that they’re a successful company that has managed to become one of the largest Web enterprises through a combination of skill, ruthlessness and understanding the market. This has been achieved also with large amounts of innovation, novelty and inventiveness, which are precisely the characteristics that the patent system is supposed to encourage. The rationale behind patents is simple, the state will encourage innovators to disclose their inventions by granting them a 20-year monopoly over their work so that at the end of the period society can benefit by replicating their work.

What the patent system is not supposed to do is discourage innovators from becoming juicy patent targets. It is not supposed to reward market losers. It is not supposed to make it more expensive to conduct business. Moreover, it is not supposed to award protection for basic, non-novel and generic ideas. Unfortunately, this is precisely what is happening at the moment in the United States and increasingly in other jurisdictions. Thankfully, the rest of the world has not bought the nightmarish implementation currently in place in the US, and examples like the current dispute between Yahoo and Facebook should hopefully serve as an example of territory that should be left unexplored.

If you do not believe me that the patents involved are toxic generalities that are not worth the bits in which they are written, I give you the jewel in Yahoo’s case. Gape in wonder at US patent 5,983,227, which protects a “Dynamic page generator”. The abstract reads:

“An custom page server is provided with user preferences organized into templates stored in compact data structures and the live data used to fill the templates stored local to the page server which is handing user requests for custom pages. One process is executed on the page server for every request. The process is provided a user template for the user making the request, where the user template is either generated from user preferences or retrieved from a cache of recently used user templates. Each user process is provided access to a large region of shared memory which contains all of the live data needed to fill any user template. Typically, the pages served are news pages, giving the user a custom selection of stock quotes, news headlines, sports scores, weather, and the like. With the live data stored in a local, shared memory, any custom page can be built within the page server, eliminating the need to make requests from other servers for portions of the live data. While the shared memory might include RAM (random access memory) and disk storage, in many computer systems, it is faster to store all the live data in RAM. “

Yes, Yahoo has managed to turn the most basic manner of updating a dynamic page with pre-determined server information imaginable into a patent. The claim is for any system that includes a server which serves data to a page viewed in a browser, and the data consists of information that the user wants updated in that page, be it “stock quotes, sports scores and news headlines”. Moreover, the patent also covers the creation of any sort of dynamic content based on geolocation information obtained by demographic information and post codes, and translating that information into sports news and other local provisions. Once again, the USPTO proves that it is willing to give anyone a patent for the not-so-clever use of database entries. It is no wonder that one of the inventors of several of Yahoo’s patents has publicly denounced the patents.

Facebook of course counter-sued Yahoo for patent infringement. Facebook’s patents are another rogue gallery of broad claims, non-innovative “inventions”, and cleverly-worded basic database functions. Just take a look at US patent 6,288,717 for “Headline posting algorithm”, or my favourite, patent 8,150,913 for a “System for controlled distribution of user profiles over a network”. That’s a patent of privacy, if you care to read it. No amount of snarkiness can convey what I feel.

Those who have studied logic will be familiar with the concept of reductio ad absurdum, this is an argument that has been taken to its extreme and absurd consequences, and hence it is disproved. I believe the current dispute has managed to do just that for software patents. The argument in favour of a system that allows this to happen are non-existent.

2 comments to Lessons to be learned from the social media patent war

  • I do no agree that the problem is with the concept of software patents as long as processes remain patentable. As you incitefully stated, the mentioned patents may be overally broad or generic and perhaps invalid. Doesn't this say more about the patent granting process than it does about whether or not software patents should exist?

    Instead of making blanket statements that software patents are evil, perhaps we should first consider carefully revamping the review/granting mechanism for software patents.

    • Dear Robert,

      I think that the problem with quality is caused in great part by the subject matter. Software is not well-suited for patenting. I have been looking at software patents for years, and I can honestly say that there are only a handful that I would say are worthy of protection. These tend to be very detailed and technical software applications.

      The fact is that at the moment there are just too many bad and broad patents out there. The well is truly poisoned.

Leave a Reply