Philip Greenspun, a pioneer of internet web technologies at MIT, has written a new piece on Internet Software Patents. (Via Feld Thoughts) It's a must read and a good starting point for understanding the Mad Mad Mad World of Internet Software Patents.
Greenspun conjectures that "Perhaps the natural progression of an industry is innovation,
consolidation, then litigation." We are certainly seeing this pattern in the Blackboard Inc vs Desire2Learn patent case. As the 2006 Educause Catalyst Award recognized, Course Management Systems emerged in "pockets of innovation among faculty" throughout the world. Later the CMS began to evolve into products through pioneering work at University of British Columbia and Cornell University. It began to hit mainstream with the emergence of Prometheus (origins at George Washington University), Desire2Learn (origins in Canada), and then open source implementations with Sakai and Moodle. Blackboard's acquisition of Prometheus and then WebCT completed the consolidation but also gave Blackboard a de facto monopoly status in the industry. (By most estimates Blackboard enjoys 60-75% of the CMS market share). If Greenspun is correct, then we are squarely in the litigation phase.
- A Pattern Emerges. "In the Internet software patents that I've looked at in subsequent expert witness assignments, a pattern has emerged. Someone takes a fairly standard business process and says "I'm the first person ever to have done this with a computer" or "I'm the first person ever to have done this with the Internet" and patents it."
- A Developer's Perspective. "I was asked "Why didn't you patent this yourself, if you developed it first?" My reply was "It only took me an hour to build; if I went down to the patent office after every hour of programming, I wouldn't get very much done.""
- The Patent Examiner. "How come the patent examiner grants patents on stuff that a 12-year-old Visual Basic programmer would probably implement without too much thought? A patent examiner is only permitted to spend about 12 hours looking at a patent. If he or she cannot find prior art within those 12 hours, the patent is issued. Mostly patent examiners look at other patents, but sometimes they search academic journals and popular magazines. Still, if you had 12 hours to search, including time spent writing correspondence to the applicant, would you be able to find a publication on how to use a file cabinet with hanging folders?"
My own conclusions after reading Greenspun's insightful article?