Software Patent of the Week: IBM, Patent Troll

by on October 27, 2006 · 18 comments

Every week, I look at a software patent that’s been in the news. You can see previous installments in the series here. But this week, Luis Villa has done most of my work for me:

IBM has generally been very good about supporting open source, and as steven says, they’ve been very up front about their motivations- they are doing it because they want to make money, and they think open source and open standards help them make money.

This consistency has extended to their opinions on patents- they have made it clear that they think the system is broken, but they have also made it clear that they think patents are a perfectly legitimate business tool, and that they want to fix the system so that they can continue to make money on patents…

So it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that IBM are using patents to go after Amazon. What surprised me, after skimming the patents, is that the patents they are using to go after Amazon are so broad. With the exception of one (which is so opaque I can’t figure out what exactly it is patenting) a cursory reading suggests that these are exactly the kinds of broad, obvious patents that everyone (even IBM) at least says on the surface that they hate. Maybe by demonstrating that they have what Tim Bray calls ‘the Internet Tollbooth’ they think they can precipitate real patent reform, but that seems unlikely; more likely they just want a cut of Amazon’s pile. Shame, really, but it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Companies have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders to maximize their profits, so it shouldn’t surprise us when companies do legal but shady things that enhance their bottom lines. However, it should make us ask why the patent system is giving companies the incentive to engage in such rent-seeking. It does nothing to promote “the progress of science and the useful arts” to give companies monopolies on ideas like “System for ordering items using an electronic catalogue” that are so obvious that it’s inevitable that dozens of companies would independently “invent” them.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: