Patents Roundup: Unconstitutional Patent Reform, SCOTUS Ruling on i4i and University Patent Rights, More Calls to Abolish Software Patents
Summary: Latest news and commentary on patent monopolies (mostly from the United States)
• Supreme Court Signals Pending Patent Reform Is Unconstitutional (by Dan Ravicher, a pro-Free software lawyer, following the i4i decision at the SCOTUS, whose recent decisions have been terrible [1, 2])
“Congress is, unfortunately, on the verge of passing the so-called “America Invents Act” (S. 23 and H.R. 1249) that would change our patent system from the “first to invent” system we’ve had since our founding, to a “first to file” system. This is not only harmful to small entrepreneurs, but it also violates the plain language of the Constitution, which requires patents be granted to “inventors”, not “filers.” To be sure, the Supreme Court just this week reminded us that the Constitution guarantees patent rights shall vest in inventors, not their employers. In a case involving Stanford University, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the very first sentence of his opinion for the Court, “Since 1790, the patent law has operated on the premise that rights in an invention belong to the inventor.” The Chief Justice continued to write, “Although much in intellectual property law has changed in the 220 years since the first Patent Act, the basic idea that inventors have the right to patent their inventions has not. … Our precedents confirm the general rule that rights in an invention belong to the inventor.” Thus, the Supreme Court unquestionably believes that the American patent system is based on awarding patents to inventors. Scholars also agree that changing from the “first to invent gets the patent” system that we have today to a “first to file an application gets the patent” system being considered by Congress would violate the Constitution.
“So one is left to ask, why is Congress about to pass a law that would benefit large corporations, harm small entrepreneurs and violate the Constitution? I don’t know, but maybe if you call your representative (212-224-3121) they can explain it to you.”
• SCOTUS makes patent holders happy, upholds $290M Microsoft verdict (by Timothy B. Lee, who is against the patent propaganda machine)
In a New York Times op-ed supporting Microsoft, UCLA law professor Doug Lichtman had argued that changing the standard of proof would “give relief to the countless businesses that today find themselves vulnerable to patents that shouldn’t have been issued in the first place.” A wide variety of companies and public interest groups, including Google, Red Hat, Walmart, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Apache Software Foundation, filed briefs echoing that point. But the Supreme Court decided that whatever the merits of these policy arguments, they couldn’t overrule the text of the patent law and the courts’ long history of employing the higher standard.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in a ruling that limits the patent rights of research universities, threw out Stanford University’s suit against a Roche Holding AG (ROG) unit over methods for testing the effectiveness of AIDS treatments.
Voting 7-2, the justices upheld a lower court’s conclusion that a scientist working at Stanford in Palo Alto, California, transferred his rights to the discoveries to a company whose line of business Roche later bought. Under the court’s reasoning, the transfer made the company a co-owner of three disputed patents.
Dixon points out a key part of the problem is that so many patents are clearly obvious to anyone skilled in the art. He notes that any competent engineer could create what’s found in the vast majority of software patents, and notes that the examiners simply aren’t competent enough to recognize what’s obvious. Dixon, who is both an investor and a long-term entrepreneur, certainly knows these things. What’s amazing to me, honestly, is how few people in Silicon Valley actually think patents are a good idea any more. The system has become so distorted that most of the people they’re supposed to benefit the most don’t want them, but feel compelled to get them due to the system. What a massive amount of waste, leading to a mess that holds back innovation.
Wilson makes one other statement that I thought was interesting. He compared patenting software to patenting music, noting that neither makes sense.
The entire software industry works like this, and the use of patents is very rare relative to all software that’s written. The market rewards applied innovation, but doesn’t try to artificially inhibit competition. It combines the best parts of capitalism, collaboration, and a vast public domain.
Our industry is booming, innovation is rapid and rampant, and everyone’s making a living. The world could benefit immensely if more industries could innovate as rapidly and significantly as the software industry. We’re doing great, almost entirely without using patents.
• The patent balance (Marco Arment is against aiming high like the FFII and FSF)
My sense is that most programmers would now argue against software patents, just as Marco has. We’re 30 years into the software patent system and seeing its downsides: the patent term is way too long for software; too many patents have been issued; and patent extortion is rewarded instead of punished. What’s gone wrong?
I said at the top that I’m sympathetic to the idea that software patents should never have been allowed. But whether they should have been allowed or not, they are a fact of life today and that’s not going to change. If you think the patent system is out of balance, you should work to put it back in balance, not chase after some fantasy of turning back the clock.