I Think I Just Got Patented.

Tuesday 2 February 2010 by Bradley M. Kuhn

I could not think of anything but the South Park quote, They took our jobs! when I read today Black Duck's announcement of their patent, Resolving License Dependencies For Aggregations of Legally-Protectable Content.

I've read through the patent, from the point of view of someone skilled in this particular art. In fact, I'm specifically skilled in two distinct arts related to this patent: computer programming and Free Software license compatibility analysis. It's from that perspective that I took a look at this patent.

(BTW, the thing to always remember about reading patents is that the really significant part isn't the abstract, which often contains pie-in-the-sky prose about what the patent covers. The claims are the real details of the so-called “invention”.)

So, when I look closely at these claims, I am appalled to discover this patent claims, as a novel invention, things that I've done regularly, with a mix of my brain and a computer, since at least 1999. I quickly came to the conclusion that this is yet another stupid patent granted by the USPTO that it would be better to just ignore.

Indeed, ever since Amazon's one-click patent, I've hated the inundation of “look what stupid patent was granted today” slashdot items. I think it's a waste of time, generally speaking, since the USPTO is granting many stupid software patents every single day. If we spend our time gawking and saying how stupid they are, we don't get any real work done.

But, the (likely obvious) reason this caught my attention is that the patent covers activities I've done regularly for so long. It gives me this sick feeling in my stomach to read someone else claiming as an invention something I've done and considered quite obvious for more than a decade.

I'm not a patent agent (nor do I want to be — spending a week of my life studying for a silly exam to get some credential hasn't been attractive to me since I got my Master's degree), but honestly, I can't see how this patented process isn't obvious to everyone skilled in the arts of FLOSS license evaluation and computer programming. Indeed, the process described is so simple-minded, that it's a waste of time in my view to spend time writing a software system to do it. With a few one-off 10-line Perl programs and a few greps, I've had a computer assist me with processes like this one many times since the late 1990s.

I do feel some shame that I've now contributed to the “hey, everyone, let's gawk at this silly pointless surely-invalid patent” rant. I guess that I have new sympathy for website designers who were so personally offended regarding the Amazon one-click patent. I can now confirm first-hand: it does really feel different when the patent claims seem close to an activity you've engaged in yourself for many years prior to the patent application. It's when the horribleness of the software patent system starts to really hit home.

The saddest part, though, is that Black Duck again shows itself as a company whose primary goal is to prey on people's fear of software freedom. They make proprietary software and acquire software patents with the primary goal of scaring people into buying stuff they probably don't need. I've spent a lot more time working regularly on FLOSS license compliance than anyone who has ever worked at Black Duck. Simply put, coming into (and staying in) compliance is a much simpler process than they say, and can be done easily without the use of overpriced proprietary analysis of codebases.

Posted on Tuesday 2 February 2010 at 14:45 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization. Since I do co-own ebb.org with my wife, it may not be so obvious that these aren't her views and opinions, either.

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Bradley M. Kuhn <bkuhn@ebb.org>