9 September 2013
Thomas Edison was an amazing person who invented pretty much everything in the modern world. His genius could be measured objectively, just by looking at the number of patents he had been awarded. Edison was a childhood hero and I dreamed of one day obtaining a patent of my own.
Of course reality was quite different from what the books I grew up with described. They failed to mention that Edison was a thief, a thug, and a patent troll. He was petty, greedy and ruthless. But his self-serving PR campaign continued for half a century after his death before finally running out of steam. Since then it has been interesting to watch his reputation sink lower and lower every decade, while his arch-nemesis Nikola Tesla (a man I'd never heard of) steadily rises in the public consciousness.
Mirroring the decline of Edison's reputation has been the decline in respect for patents. The software industry in particular is a minefield of hidden patents. One cannot write any decent-sized application without inadvertently stepping on someone's patent. Double-clicking, progress bars, and pop-up windows are all patented. Lawyers will pounce on programmers to extort licensing fees. It doesn't matter if the patent is invalid, the lawsuits will bankrupt all but the largest players.
Software patents serve no useful purpose and should be abolished. Just as New Zealand did last week. But until this happens, the only defence is to have a portfolio of patents with which one can retaliate if attacked. Accordingly, I've just invented a UI technique and filed a patent for "Disambiguating Unconnected Components". It will be a few years before it is officially granted.
I hope software patents are just a historical footnote by then. The same as Edison is quickly becoming.
On a somewhat different topic, what springs to mind if you were to see "PGWEB BANOEBS"? As an English reader, you are likely confused. But place yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn't know the Latin alphabet. Instead of reading words, you are doing shape-recognition on weird characters. Can you figure out what a Chinese child thinks when they see "PGWEB BANOEBS"?
Here's the answer. Just a creatively named Chinese-made knock-off I spotted in Ho Chi Minh City. I'd love to hear the arguments in the resulting trademark infringement lawsuit.