Innovation: Dont Get Me Wrong

Opinion: I'm looking for evidence that software patents don't stifle innovation and coming up empty.

It turns out that Im a really naive person. I thought I was arguing in favor of innovation when I was writing columns attacking software patents. It seemed obvious to me that software patents served mainly to stop innovation by real developers, who have come to fear teams of lawyers arguing that the coders projects had violated some broad patent.

But, according to several e-mails Ive received—all from executives at software companies, mind you—Ive got the whole thing completely backward. Software patents protect and encourage innovation by letting developers (or at least the vendors they work for) know that they can get every penny coming to them.

What was I thinking? Id have to be some kind of pinko Commie to think that anyone would ever do anything if there wasnt the potential for a big payday at the end.

So, now that my backward thinking has been corrected by these valiant, patent-holding software vendors, I think Ill just look back through the history of computing and bask in the great innovations that have been brought to us via patented software from vendors.

There was, of course ... um. Nope, wait ... what do you call it? No. Hmm.

It looks like I might need a little more help here, gang. As I think back in time, especially if I start with the PC age, I dont see a whole lot of innovation from patented commercial software. In fact, most of the great software innovations seem to have come from individuals or small groups of developers who were creating something solely to solve a problem, to help a group they were part of, or simply out of curiosity and because they could.

VisiCalc is generally considered the first killer app of the PC era. Dan Bricklin, the developer of VisiCalc, said the idea for the spreadsheet application came to him while he was a student at Harvard Business School. The programming and concepts behind VisiCalc werent patented, but somehow that didnt prevent the applications creation.

What about the technology that has changed everything we do today—namely, the World Wide Web? That technology was created by a researcher at CERN, Tim Berners-Lee, who wanted to make it easier for groups (especially those he was a member of) to collaborate over the Internet.

In the few cases where an innovative software product has come out of a company, the products developer was most likely working on the software as a side project, or the vendor had conceived the software for use in one area and a developer figured out that it was better suited in another.

/zimages/5/28571.gifPatents cast shadow on future development. Click here to read more.

To a large degree, software companies dont innovate in the "come up with something new" sense. For the most part, vendors take something that already exists and try to make it different—either by piling on features, by integrating it with something else, or by using the classic hype, "Its an X-type of application but on the Web or on a cell phone."

Its not hard to understand why software companies dont innovate in any meaningful sense of the word. Think about it: Real innovations are very scary and disruptive. They change business models, alter the way people do work and completely change the competitive landscape. Why risk any of that when you can just figure out a way to get people to upgrade to a new, slightly different version of your product?

Yes, Im moving back to my original position. Patents dont encourage innovation; they take it out into a back alley and kick it senseless. In fact, according to a study by Jim Bessens Research On Innovation organization, here in PDF, innovation has declined as software patents have increased.

Of course, you can still try to convince me. Send me your list of patented commercial innovations or innovations from developers not concerned about the patents themselves or the big bucks. If I get enough of these letters, I can use the data to write a new column slightly different from this one. And I promise I wont patent it.

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Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at

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