Habitual readers may have noticed that I am not a fan of software patents. From time to time one reads attempts to defend them in comments, blog posts, and with less frequency in scholarly articles, but as time goes by more evidence comes to light to demonstrate that they are damaging. Software patents are a blight, a tax on invention, a legal disease that turns software development into a minefield where the mediocre are rewarded while the true innovators are punished.
Take the latest patent suit to be making the news. Patent troll firm Uniloc has sued Swedish game developer Mojang, makers of the wildly successful game Minecraft. They have also sued Electronic Arts and nine other game developers. How do I know that Uniloc are patent trolls? They don’t seem to produce anything. While there is a history that at one point in the 90s there was some sort of code involved, at present it seems like Uniloc does nothing but sell licences of its copy protection patent, and not actual software. Uniloc prides itself that “software publishers and videogame companies worldwide have selected Uniloc as a partner”. It would be more accurate to say that they have sued people and sent cease-and-desist letters to get companies to license their software without getting any code in return.
But things get really bad when you read the actual patent. I present you US Patent 6,857,067 for a system and method for preventing unauthorized access to electronic data. With such a broad name, you just know that this is going to be bad. And it is. The abstract reads:
“A system and method are provided for preventing unauthorized access to electronic data stored on an electronic device. A portable licensing medium is configured to communicate with the electronic device for storing license data. The license data is used to determine whether to allow access to the electronic data. A registration authority communicates with the electronic device. The registration authority has a database of verification data for verifying the license data stored on the licensing medium and provides updated license data to the licensing medium.”
So, this is a software patent for mobile DRM. Nice, two of favourite hated legal figures together at last. Reading the claims does not mitigate in any shape or form the obviousness of the “invention”. The claims pretty much describes a basic method of storing licensing information in a mobile device, encrypting it, and then sending that information to be decrypted by a server or a certificate authority. The patent does this for every sort of technology you can think of, such as smart cards and other electronic devices. The fact that the patent was applied for in 2001 makes it even worse, as I can think of at least 4 systems that did this function by that time. Heck, you can use the fact that there is a WIPO treaty dating from 1997 protecting the sort of technology that is the subject of this patent as evidence of prior art! Even if we grant the fact that the initial invention comes from a 1992 Australian patent, copy protection was already old technology.
This is not an invention, this is not an innovation, this is not state of the art. This simply is someone seeing what other people were doing, writing it down in legalese, and patenting it so that you can extort license fees from the people who are actually producing software.
Ric Richardson, one of the inventors behind Uniloc, has come out defending Uniloc and its patents. Apparently, the history of the patent is that
“You come up with a great idea. You want to see hundreds, thousands or maybe millions of people use it. But the people you compete with have many more resources than you. You dont have millions of dollars or thousands of smart people to help you. In a perfect world you start making something and put a disclaimer on the front of each product “I am the inventor of this product. Please feel free to use it but please do not copy it and produce it yourself.” Unfortunately that doesn’t work.”
This would be fine if anyone thought that Uniloc and Mr Richardson invented copy protection. They did not. They simply beat everyone to getting a patent examiner to agree that this was a patentable idea.
We will continue to experience ridiculous patents until the system is reformed to disallow such blatant obvious software solutions as inventions.
I wish Mojang the best of luck, go kill yourselves a troll.