Software Patents are Pointless

You’ve heard me rant about software patents before.

Today’s stupid thing comes from a news release that Nikon is buying RED, which has been making excellent digital film cameras for years, now. The news release noted how RED had been suing companies for breeching their patent for “compressing RAW video”.

Like, I can’t even, some days.

For the record, I haven’t read the patent. It could be a glorious oversimplification to say “compressing RAW video” and there might be a whole other level of complexity in there. But I still think it’s a good place to start with “compressing digital data”. Which, dear reader, has been long, long since solved. That was solved in the mid-80s with LZW compression. It wasn’t the best and many more algorithms would follow, but if you need examples of “prior art”, there’s where you can begin.

Next we have video, which itself has been around since the 1930s in one form or another. Digitized video, 1960s. Pure digital video, late 1980s. Most of that, however, was encoded in some public-domain format, like DV and MPEG.

RAW formats – photos that had no default compression or conversion – didn’t emerge until 2004, when Adobe created the Digital Negative file format, or DNG. Although it didn’t catch on in the camera manufacturers (they always wanted their own format), Adobe still uses it in their software.

There, that’s the basis: digital recording, digital video, RAW source. And in 2007, RED released their first camera, which recorded RAW 4K video, a game changer in the industry with a (comparatively) low price tag (a mere $20,000).

It almost angers me that a patent was allowed when this sort of a progression is so logical. Of course there would be RAW video, that’s a given … and there is no doubt that someone would say “Hey, you know, this RAW video is massive, we need a way to make it smaller without losing any data along the way”. Because that’s happened every.single.time. with digital information – it’s too big, make it smaller.

What we have here is a complete failure of the patent system to recognize that there is more than one person doing the work of discovery and invention, often independently of each other. And with the secrecy that exists in the industry, these people often work completely unaware of anyone else trying to solve the same problem.

The patent system helped Goodyear (the man, not the company) because it took him years to figure out vulcanized rubber. Extremely few people with limited resources. Here, patents make a bit of sense. But in software, we’re talking millions of people with extremely low cost barrier to entry. Every day, we’re adding thousands more people to the industry because you don’t need a degree to learn how to program. We literally have scenarios where a single program written by an otherwise anonymous person is a cornerstone of the internet’s operations.

Software patents are pointless because anyone can develop software, anyone can solve a problem that comes into their mind, and there is no check or balance system for correctness.

It’s the Infinite Monkey Theorem – an infinite number of monkeys at typewriters will write Shakespeare. Or, a sufficiently large enough pool of programmers will solve the same problems even if they’re utterly unaware of the problems existing anywhere else. Or, frankly, don’t care about anyone else because they want to solve the problem, even if it’s been solved before. Because that’s how programmers think.

Personally, every software patent – every single, solitary one – should be torn up, rendered obsolete. Even if we only consider the humans, it makes no sense because we have too many people in the pool. But not anymore, now we have AI programming copilots that can logically source software and iterate on problems to create similar solutions. The number of monkeys just went up.

If we have any hope to further innovation in software without the constant fear of lawyers and their heavy-handed actions, we need to cease all software patents and let programmers do what they do best. Let them investigate, let them solve problems, let them collaborate without fear, bring about a better world of reliable software and not worry about pointless paperwork.

No software patents, better software.

patents are pointless because anyone can develop software. Infinite monkeys.