Recently, I discovered that my favorite mobile OS is swimming against the current of lawsuit flash-flood. And the water is rising, threatening to smash the little green robot against the rocks of multi-million dollar settlements. Superfluous analogies aside, this news came as a surprise to some journalists, but I don’t think any actual software developer as much as lifted his eyebrow. Because “in the bizz”, lawsuits are basically a form of popularity tax.
In case you haven’t heard anything about the software patent debate, here’s a quick rundown. There are over 400,000 software and algorithm patents out there, and every year more are granted. Due to the overwhelming generosity of the Patent Office is way too generous, many of the patents are ridiculous, or they cover things that have been done long before the patent claim was written.
Based on the current status, you essentially can not write an app that doesn’t somehow infringe on someone else’s patent. One might think this is an exaggeration, but let’s take a look at the following list of legal no-no’s:
1) Pop-up note
Yes, the patent for a trusty old mouseover pop-up, used by most applications out there, was granted to Microsoft. If you want your app to be legal, you can’t use them.
2) In-game messaging
3) Online games
Why not ban all massively multiplayer online (MMO) games altogether? That’s what Sheldon Goodberg could do, as he holds a very broad patent for “networking gaming system”. He had enough sense not to go after World of Warcraft, and he’s targeting online solitaire for a start. Who knows what will happen If he succeeds?
4) Progress bar
It seems that IBM is the only kid on the block cool enough to use a progress bar!
5) One-click checkout
This one goes to Amazon, because the idea of storing client’s information is so innovative. However, it shouldn’t matter to you, because you are not allowed to conduct internet sales anyway. Just check the next point.
6) Online sales
Sorry, Internet stores around the world. You’re just a bunch of criminals. According to the US Patent Office, the idea of e-commerce is the sole property of Open Market Inc. The company claims its patent also covers all remote sales systems, including electronic booths.
7) Online poll
Sorry, can’t do it. The patent is out there, owned by Microsoft. They don’t sue anyone, keeping the patent as a part of their arsenal, or in case of cross-patenting deals. That doesn’t make your nifty online poll legal, however.
8) Content streaming
Whether you plan to send your users video or music, be advised that Acacia Technologies owns a stupidly broad 1991 patent that basically covers all of media streaming. And being a greedy troll, they sued Time Warner Cable and other big VOD providers. Fortunately they lost, but they are still pursuing Apple, HTC, and Nokia.
This list could go on and on. As you can probably imagine, developers are not content with the state of the game. It sucks to be a start-up in a world of rampaging software patents.
And it can actually get worse. There is a landmark case going on right now, in a field that geeks are not usually interested in: the deep fryer business. It’s a case between Global-Tech Appliance and SEB, where SEB is accused of reverse-engineering a super-secret deep fat fryer idea.
What does it have to do with software? Well, if the court agrees that “inducement” is illegal, then according to some lawyers, writing an app that mimics established functions can be also challenged in court. Basically, this means if Facebook’s success inspired you to create your own social network, you would be breaking the law. On top of that, you will never be allowed to code another Internet browser. Which is probably a good thing, come to think of it, as we have too many of them already.