Misconceptions about Software Patents; A USA Viewpoint

As the recipient of the first software patent in 1968, I have been following (and written about) the software patent controversy in the United States for almost 50 years. This issue remains fiercely controversial throughout the world, including the USA. But in the USA, unlike the UK, software-related patents have been issued by the thousands for the last 30 plus years.


According to Wikipedia “there is no legal definition of a software patent”. Let’s look at two possible definitions.

Definition 1: If the definition of a software patent is that, if in the Disclosure of the invention, there is a description of a computer program (in whole, or in part) then the patent would be called “software patent”. A “Software patent”, under this definition, would be found in many industries, e.g., Software, Telecommunications, Manufacturing, Transportation, Appliances, Medical, Robotics—to name a few.

Said another way… In many industries inventions contain software programs as part of their disclosures. Take the Robotics/Medical Devices sector, where very sophisticated computer programs can control an artificial limb. How the artificial limbs are designed and constructed may be the invention. Or the invention may be how the computer program(s) interacts with the artificial limb. Or the invention may be a combination of both elements.

A more recent real life invention is the artificial retina, a robotics/medical device which offers partial vision for the blind. It’s described as a camera, transmitter, and cable to video processor (software) connected to the brain.

So those that want to eliminate software patents, by design or by ignorance, would eliminate all robotic/medical device inventions where the disclosure includes a computer program.

Definition 2: Anti-Software patent zealots might argue that the definition of a “software patent” is when the disclosure of the invention only describes a computer program and a computer. And then their goal would be to have Congress change the Patent System to eliminate the issuance of “software only patents”. But that would be catastrophic for the Software Industry, where many of their inventions are software only. This industry is made up of thousands of companies and is recognized as one of the top three manufacturing industries in the world .With annual worldwide revenues well over $ 300 Billion this industry needs (and wants) just as much patent protection as other industries.

Many software product companies can be thought of as high-technology manufacturing entities. Many of their products are state of the art, developed in a competitive, fast-moving environment that requires rapid response to meet user demand. Some of their products can be all software i.e., Google’s search program or they could be a combination of software and hardware circuitry and/or devices i.e., Google’s driverless car or the 3-D printer.

If the patent application contains a true invention it should be irrelevant whether or not the invention is disclosed as a “software only” implementation. The following are two examples of inventions from the Software Industry to illustrate my point of view:

Back in November 2012 Microsoft stated in a press release “Microsoft researchers have demonstrated software that translates spoken English into spoken Chinese almost instantly, while preserving the unique cadence of the speaker’s voice—a trick that could make conversation more effective and personal.” Certainly the way Microsoft’s researchers accomplished this complex translation is not obvious. And I have little doubt that Microsoft will try to protect its research investment with a patent application. But its patent claims could not be that it invented “speech recognition” or “language translation”, or even “voice to voice translations”.

Patents for Voice and Speech Recognition patents go back well over 30 years with IBM having over 200 speech recognition patents. And there have been language translation patents for many years. But Microsoft could invent a new way to do voice recognition and language translations and at the same time retain the cadence of the speaker’s voice. And, let’s imagine, the invention would use a standard headphone and the headphone would not be part of the disclosure. Such a patent on that invention would be software only (and a computer) in its disclosure. But what if the invention needed a special set of headphones (a device), was integral to the invention, and was part of the disclosure? Is a speech recognition/translation/cadence and special headphone invention any more innovative than a “speech recognition/translation/cadence” software only invention?

In 2000, a renowned inventor, Ray Kurzweil received a patent named Reading System which Reads Aloud from an Image Representation of a Document. The patent disclosure shows a diagram of a monitor, scanner, speakers, and a PC computer composed of a processor, storage and a keyboard. The essence of the disclosure and the invention is a logic chart describing a machine system which interacts with a speech synchronizer and the various devices.

The first sentence of the abstract in the patent stated “a reading system includes a computer and a mass storage device including software comprising instructions for causing a computer to accept an image file generated from optically scanning an image of a document.”

At that time, Ray Kurzweil’s company, Kurzweil Educational Systems marketed a special purpose hardware/software system called the Kurzweil 3000 Reading Machine which was marketed to the blind and poor readers. They received a patent on this invention in 2000. Today the company sells a software only system called Kurzweil 3000 and continues to have the protection of the patent system through his original 2000 patent and with additional patents e.g., Reducing processing latency in optical character recognition for portable reading machine --- another software only patent.

Few would argue that the Kurzweil 3000 Reading Machine was not an invention and not deserving of a patent.

What these zealots should be arguing is that many software patents issued by the US Patent Office, including most business-method patents, should never have been issued because of their obviousness. With that I heartily agree. To their credit, the Patent Office and the Courts are today grappling with how to recognize obviousness in a patent application. A very difficult challenge, to say the least.

But let’s stop calling a true invention that includes a computer program in its disclosure a software patent. In fact, let’s eliminate the phrase “a software patent” from our vocabulary.

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