Jan 12 2010

Proposal: An Independent Inventor Defense Against Software Patents

Brad Burnham at Union Square Ventures put up a very important post last night titled We need an independent invention defense to minimize the damage of aggressive patent trolls.  His partner Fred Wilson echoed Brad’s thoughts on his blog with a post titled Why We Need An Independent Invention Defense.

Brad’s post starts out with the following:

“Almost a third of our portfolio is under attack by patent trolls. Is it possible that one third of the engineering teams in our portfolio unethically misappropriated technology from someone else and then made that the basis of their web services? No! That’s not what is happening. Our companies are driven by imaginative and innovative engineering teams that are focused on creating social value by bringing innovative new services to market.”

It’s a fantastic description of the fundamental problem with software patents.  For example:

“The problem is that the patent system has fallen way behind the pace of innovation, especially in information technology. Originally designed to protect the brilliant independent inventor of a better mousetrap, the patent system has been stretched to be applied to software. Software is a language and like any language, it can be very abstract. Everyone applying for a patent pays a lawyer to take their invention and render it into the broadest, most abstract language they can slip through the patent office. A mouse trap is a mouse trap, but a method of allowing one piece of software to talk to another (the generalized language often used to describe a software system) can be almost anything, and can, if approved, impact markets the original inventor could never even have imagined.”

Brad goes on to discuss the specific problem of patent trolls and proposes a solution to address this – that of an independent inventor defense.  If you’ve gotten this far, go read Brad’s full essay on the independent investor defense.

I’m extremely excited to see Brad and Fred come out so strongly against software patents.  I’ve been talking against this for a long time and I expect my rants against software patents are well known to any readers of this blog (if you aren’t familiar with them, feel free to indulge yourself if you are so inclined.)  But this is the first time that I’m aware that any of my peers – other than my partners at Foundry Group – have come out so strongly in public against software patents. 

I purposely limit my “special initiative” work and try to focus on a few things that I think will make a substantial difference in the world of software / Internet entrepreneurship (the domain that I’ve chosen to dedicate my professional life to.)  Right now I’m deep in the effort to get a Startup Visa created but have continued to pay attention to the software patent issue while looking for the right time to scale up an effort.

That time is now.  I just emailed with Brad and he’s game to lead a charge with me.  I saw tweets from several friends last night including Chris Sacca who knows this issue firsthand.  As with the Startup Visa there are plenty of other credible smart people who are putting real intellectual energy into this issue, such as the End Software Patents initiative and Wendy Seltzer, a well known researcher who is currently spending a year at Silicon Flatirons researching software patents and innovation (disclosure: I’m providing some of the funding for this initiative at Silicon Flatirons.) 

It’s now time to get the practitioners (entrepreneurs and investors in software innovation) to get organized around this.  If you are interested in helping out substantively, leave a comment on this blog with your email address as I start to get organized.