I saw this list of patents on the back of something I bought recently:
(click for larger image)
That is 40 patents, with 28 in the US alone and “other U.S. and foreign patents pending”. But it isn’t a flying car, a teleporter or a death ray. It is a child’s toy that blows bubbles.
It can blow bubbles within bubbles, which is quite neat, and its includes the weasel words “One or more of [the] following patents apply”. But still, 40 patents?
Patents have also got rather out of hand in the software world. The Amazon patent on “1-click ordering” is one of the more flagrant examples. This patent is now being challenged, but such a trivial patent should never have been granted in the first place. I am decidedly uneasy about the whole concept of patenting software. Software is closer to literature and mathematics than it is to invention, and it makes no sense to patent literature or mathematics. Copyright protection seems adequate to me. But, even if we allow that some forms of software innovation might be patentable, its serves no-one’s interests (apart from the lawyers) to allow trivial patents.
The companies that apply for these patents are only partly to blame. If ridiculous patents are being granted companies will inevitably have to join in to provide some protection against the patent portfolios of their competitors. Most of the blame has to lie with the institutions granting the patents and the US patent office seems to be far and away the worst offender. If the US patent office doesn’t have the resources and expertise to evaluate software patents then it should acquire the resources and expertise, and soon. The purpose of patents should be to foster innovation, not to stifle it.