posted Jul 17, 2003
in Communication Ethics

Communication Ethics book part for Patents & Copyright. (This is an automatically generated summary to avoid having huge posts on this page. Click through to read this post.)

In the preceding analysis, we observed that copyright has traditionally been balanced for free speech. It's worth expanding on that, because software counts as an "expression" under current law. As an expression, it is covered by copyright.

To my knowledge, this means that software is the only thing covered both by the patent system and the copyright system. (I welcome correction on this point.) Both systems were set up to balance the rights of the creators versus the rights of the public; since the domain covered by copyright (expressions, or speech) and the domain covered by patents (machines, processes, objects) are so different that they required two separate legal systems, it should be no shock that when one thing is covered by both systems (which were explicitly designed to be separate) that the balance is destroyed.

Remember my challenge to come up with a rigorous and useful metric to determine if a piece of software violates a patent? Even if you could come up with one, it would take some serious thinking, it probably wouldn't be simple, and it would probably have a lot of exceptions and edge case. Coming up with such a metric to see if one software violates the copyright of another is trivially easy; it's basically contained in the definition of copyright. If a program would meet copyright's definition of a derived work from another program, then it is potentially in violation unless permission was obtained. Very simple. Very effective. And if you did manage to come up with a patent-derived metric, it would probably be effectively identical to the copyright metric, only much more circuitous and complex.

Copyright works for software quite well. This provides very compelling evidence that software is truly a form of communication and not an object or a process, because the system with the assumptions built in to handle communication works reasonably well, while the system built to protect physical objects works very poorly. If it walks like a copyrightable work, and quacks like a copyrightable work, maybe it really is more like a copyrightable work, not a patentable work.

The only solution to the Software Patent issue is to at the very least stop granting software patents immediately, and ideally revoke the whole idea as a net loss to society. Nothing else will do. Nothing else will work. Nothing else will be ethical.

It seems clear to me that the best resolution to the problems posed by the conceptual mismatch of "Software Patents" is for the patent system to simply get out of the software patent business, and resume its more traditional duties. Unfortunately, the copyright system will fare substantially worse at the hands of modern communications...

 

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