Experience and Patents
15 years today was my first day at work. I've now officially been a professional software engineer for 15 years.
I've learned a few things over the years. Teamwork, tools, technologies, etc. College had prepared me for those.
However, college hadn't prepared me for the way patents have a catastrophic influence on the software industry.
Patents are supposed to encourage innovation. The underlying assumption is that there'd be less innovation without patents. And yet in 15 years I have never heard anyone say that they would only develop and ship a technology if they could patent it. Development always comes first, patents happen later. Even if someone tried to have that reasoning, they wouldn't be able to actually do it in practice: patents take several years to get granted, and in the software world that's an eternity. Software innovation happens regardless of patents, patents make no difference in the domain of software innovation.
Patents are supposed to help the public by moving technologies into the public domain after about 20 years. 20 years is an eternity in the software world. 20 years ago, we were running Windows 3.1, System 7.1 (which wasn't even called MacOS yet), and our game consoles were the Genesis and SNES. The ancestor of today's smartphones was the Psion series 3: look it up. Those are all so ancient that none of the underlying software techniques are useful any more. When software patents fall into the public domain, they are so old that they are worthless, so the public doesn't benefit from them.
Even in the ~20 years while a patent is "live", having it public is not useful. I have never heard someone bump into a problem and try to see if there was a patent for a solution that could be licensed. Not only does this not happen, it's actually strongly discouraged or explicitly forbidden in many companies, because patent law provides a very strong incentive against doing such a search for existing patents.
Patents are antithetical to the core principle of software re-use. As such, they are a very strong damper against FLOSS as well. While I rarely agree with Mr Stallman, to his credit he had identified that issue very clearly as early as 1991, whereas the Open Source definition 7 years later doesn't even hint that patents could be an issue.
All at the same time, software patents open the door for well-documented anti-competitive practices, for racketeering, for obstruction, for distraction. All that costs energy and money that could be spend innovating instead. The amount of innovation that patent prevent is staggering.
I believe that we could drop all patents today, software and hardware, related to all forms of computing devices, and see significant benefits to the general public in the form of more innovation and more competition.
It goes without saying, as usual, that none of that is my employer's opinion.