Saturday, March 1, 2008

Blackboard and software patents

Personally, I think software patents are an absurd idea, and that eventually they will start doing damage to technological innovation (if they haven't already). Just recently, a court decided in Blackboard's favor (you probably know it if you go to an American university), against a company that was essentially providing a similar service. The problem? Blackboard has a patent on software like this! Like what, you ask? Well, essentially a web service that helps teachers and students share information, the key being that a user can be both a student and a teacher, depending on what class it is. Those who have used multi-user operating systems, or online code repositories, will find the idea quite familiar. If anyone isn't convinced that the US patent system has gone absurdly out of control, here is a particularly absurd quote from the Blackboard patent:
However, electronic networks, including the Internet, are complex technological systems requiring the user to have or acquire specialized knowledge in order to use them effectively. Even graphical user interfaces (GUIs) designed to enhance simplicity of use, such as that provided by the World Wide Web, may require specialized knowledge of network terminology and technical aspects. For example, an Internet user's ability to access information using that medium is significantly reduced if the user lacks understanding of how to use Uniform Resource Locators (URLs) to traverse (i.e., navigate) web pages. Slow adoption of new technology and lack of technological sophistication have a chilling effect on the widespread use of the medium in general. Applied specifically in an educational context, these chilling factors apply to instructors who, while possessing high expertise in their respective intellectual or educational fields, would be required to further attain technological knowledge necessary to effectively use the Internet to educate non-collocated students.

Furthermore, the complexity of using the Internet for educational purposes is compounded as the number of user choices required at the user interface increases because not only must the instructor and students acquire technological competency in the use of the medium, but they must in addition understand the presentation and consequences of a plethora of choices required by a particular user interface (e.g., a web page). The design of the user interface therefore can be critical in enabling widespread use of the medium in an educational context. Solutions other than the present invention may be characterized as having relatively complicated and confusing user interfaces. Users, including both students and instructors, of these other solutions are confronted with one or more web pages that typically require the user to review and select a subsequent web page or function from among a large array of potential user choices, thereby complicating the user's task of interacting with the system.

This is about par for the course for software and business method patents. The trick to earning one, you see, is just to overwhelm the patent office with extremely long and convoluted descriptions of trivial and common things. You see, no one will give you a patent if you apply for one for "a website that allows users to be either teachers or students in individual classes, and then allows teachers to post links online and students to click on them after they enter some username and password." However, if you make it so long and use language like "traverse web pages" and "chilling effect on the widespread use of the medium in general" (I for one am mortally terrified that people aren't using the internet because they don't know how to type in URLs!), there's a good chance that the overworked, underinformed patent officer reviewing your application is not going to understand the blinding simplicity that they're being shown, and will approve your patent. The US patent office has essentially adopted the attitude that it'll take a couple of years, but it will accept almost any patent, with the real test coming when people sue over it. This is an incredibly warped system, as it essentially forces you to pony up millions of dollars in patent lawyers' fees to get the government to take a dispassionate, careful (if you're lucky) look at the monopoly privileges that they grant by the dozens each day.

For some more software patent idiocy: Apple tries to patent the pinch; Amazon successfully patents one-click checkout (which is later revoked, but only after intimidating other online retailers); Priceline gets patent auction?

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