In the Atlantic, Timothy B. Lee explains why most software companies are effectively ignoring the patent system:
A major reason for the recent explosion of patent litigation is that it’s hard for software firms to figure out which patents they’re in danger of infringing. There are hundreds of thousands of software patents in existence, with more than 40,000 new ones issued each year. Indeed, in a recent paper, Christina Mulligan and I estimated that it’s effectively impossible for all software-producing firms to do the legal research, known as a “freedom-to-operate” (FTO) search, required to avoid infringing software patents — there simply aren’t enough patent attorneys to do the work. That’s a major reason why most software firms simply ignore the patent system.
One of the striking things about the patent debate is vast gulf between the views of computer programmers on the one hand and patent attorneys on the other. Steve Lundberg is a patent attorney and blogger who mentioned our paper in a blog post exploring the challenges of performing FTO searches in the software industry. I don’t want to pick on Lundberg, because I think you’d get similar arguments from many patent lawyers. But his post shows a fundamental lack of understanding of how the software industry works.
I work in the software industry (although not as a programmer), and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen software patents granted for things that clearly do not meet the stated criteria for granting patents. It could be a geeky party drinking game: guess whether a particular common programming technique or decades-old user interface element is patented or not, take a drink when you guess wrong. It’d be educational, although guessing “patented” every time might leave you stone cold sober at the end of the party.
As a matter of patent theory, Lundberg is absolutely correct. Patent law’s novelty and obviousness requirements are supposed to narrow the scope of patent protection. But in practice he’s dead wrong. The patent office issues a seemingly endless stream of patents on broad, obvious concepts like emoticon menus, one-click shopping, and wireless email.
And the existence of these broad, obvious patents means that software companies are constantly infringing each other’s patents by accident. The companies with the largest patent portfolios, such as Microsoft and IBM, have tens of thousands of patents, allowing them to credibly threaten almost anyone in the software industry. Even Yahoo, with its relatively modest cache of 1000 patents, was able to find ten patents to assert against Facebook.