Software consists of lists of instructions that a computer reads and executes. The tasks done by a computer are largely repetitive; the same chunks of instructions are executed many times. Each chunk performs one specific task and goes by the label algorithm, a method for accomplishing a specific task. In the United States, it is possible to obtain a patent for a software algorithm. One example of a patented software algorithm is the LZW software algorithm. The LZW patent is owned by Unisys.
The algorithm is commonly used to compress an image file into a format know as the Graphics Interchange Format (gif).
patent law was created to protect the rights of the inventor and to encourage innovation. The thinking was that an inventor would be more inclined to reveal his invention to the public if he knew that a rival would not steal his design and undercut the original inventor’s business. By encouraging inventors to share inventions with all, patent law tries to improve society. Patent law, however, is far from perfect; particularly in the area of software patents it has failed miserably to create innovation or to improve society. Like the prophecy of the witches in Macbeth, things are not always as they seem. Software patents may appear to be good at first glance, but in reality they stifle innovation First, the idea of patenting a software algorithm steps into the realm of absurdity.
------ Main keyword: Patent Title: The meaning of patent The power or permission granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new machine, process or any useful improvement regards to it is known as a *patent*. Even though a patent differs in composition and structure in many countries, the basics almost remain the same. This is especially preventing others from making or using his inventions in ...
As previously stated, an algorithm describes a concrete set of instructions which, upon execution by a computer, perform a specific task. The above definition, however, includes one erroneous detail; the instructions in an algorithm need not be executed by a computer. A computer greatly speeds the execution, but a human being can just as easily, albeit slower, execute the steps in an algorithm. With this knowledge, one struggles to grasp what exactly Unisys has patented. Have they patented the idea of the algorithm, or the actual written software form of the algorithm? If the patent governs the software form only, then what happens when a programmer uses a different programming language to write the same algorithm in a different way? (Many programming languages exist, each with different grammar).
Two programs that look incredibly different may perform exactly the same task, even when written in the same language. Perhaps Unisys only holds a patent for their particular implementation of the algorithm; however, any gif-creating software (using the LZW) violates the patent in the eyes of the law. If, on the other hand, the idea of the algorithm falls under the patent, consider the following scenario. Since a human can execute an algorithm, a human could feasibly memorize an algorithm.
By memorizing the LZW algorithm, a human could violate patent law merely by thinking. Obviously, patent law does not intend to outlaw certain forms of thinking. Even without memorization, one could break patent law by using pencil and paper. The law may see pencil and paper versus computer software as two completely different things, but they are one in the same. The computer version merely allows itself to be executed faster by a computer. Besides being utterly ridiculous, software patents stifle creativity and innovation. Patent law emerged with the stimulation of creativity and the benefit of society as two of its goals.
It has failed to do this, especially in the world of software patents. Unisys, as the LZW patent holder, does not allow gif-producing software to exits unless the person(s) responsible for the software have purchased a license from Unisys. Upon doing so, the software becomes bound by terms set by Unisys. This poses a huge problem with respect to the creativity and especially the societal benefit goals of the patent law. Specifically, a movement in the software industry has started in an attempt to produce a body of what is known as Free Software. Free Software, nothing like so called freeware, refers to freedom and not price. While it can be obtained for free, the true goal of freedom means that the software is freely redistributable and freely modifiable. Free Software attempts to help unify people by promoting sharing and teamwork in contrast to the philosophy of most commercial software producers. A Free Software program cannot legally contain the LZW algorithm because Unisys owns the algorithm and therefore part of the program.
Several people in the class have had 'computer problems' in the last couple of weeks. This is often caused by Aware, Spyware, Malware, Viruses, and not maintaining the hard drive. Many times people will buy a new PC and 6-8 months later cannot understand why it is running so poorly. I rebuild a lot of computers for people. If it is a Pentium III or better and the person has all the original ...
Unisys will not allow free redistribution of its algorithm; it wants a royalty and some control over the algorithm that it owns. Standards reign as one of the most important parts of computers, computer networks, and the Internet. By not allowing Free Software to use a patented algorithm, the possibility exists that Free Software cannot support a common computer standard. An alternative may arise and suddenly, one has two incompatible standards. In a case such as this, the patent contributed to disunity. By forcing Free Software to start from scratch instead of building on previous knowledge in the form of a patented algorithm, the patent deters innovation and forward movement.
The gif file format proliferates the Internet, and true Free Software cannot legally support it. Two new image file formats meant to replace gif have arisen which do not use patented algorithms. Incidentally, they offer many advantages over the gif standard. However, during the transition period, Patent law remains incredibly flawed and does not belong in the software world. Ideas and knowledge, unpatentable in nature, benefit society when shared, not when hoarded. The example of Unisys and LZW, by no means the only patented algorithm, gives a concrete example of the failure of the software patent to fulfill the original goals of the patent law itself.
Free and Open Source Software has been around for quite some time. Free software has always been a controversy. This time someone is trying to take a stance against it. More than just someone but a major software company namely Microsoft. The whole issue is coming against software patents. Patents are there to protect the make, use, and selling of an invention but in this case would deal with ...
One must not think too hard about this subject, however, for fear of