Ramblings & ephemera

Paul Graham on software patents

From Paul Graham’s “Are Software Patents Evil?“:

The situation with patents is similar. Business is a kind of ritualized warfare. Indeed, it evolved from actual warfare: most early traders switched on the fly from merchants to pirates depending on how strong you seemed. In business there are certain rules describing how companies may and may not compete with one another, and someone deciding that they’re going to play by their own rules is missing the point. Saying “I’m not going to apply for patents just because everyone else does” is not like saying “I’m not going to lie just because everyone else does.” It’s more like saying “I’m not going to use TCP/IP just because everyone else does.” Oh yes you are.

A closer comparison might be someone seeing a hockey game for the first time, realizing with shock that the players were deliberately bumping into one another, and deciding that one would on no account be so rude when playing hockey oneself.

Hockey allows checking. It’s part of the game. If your team refuses to do it, you simply lose. So it is in business. Under the present rules, patents are part of the game. …

When you read of big companies filing patent suits against smaller ones, it’s usually a big company on the way down, grasping at straws. For example, Unisys’s attempts to enforce their patent on LZW compression. When you see a big company threatening patent suits, sell. When a company starts fighting over IP, it’s a sign they’ve lost the real battle, for users.

A company that sues competitors for patent infringement is like a defender who has been beaten so thoroughly that he turns to plead with the referee. You don’t do that if you can still reach the ball, even if you genuinely believe you’ve been fouled. So a company threatening patent suits is a company in trouble. …

In other words, no one will sue you for patent infringement till you have money, and once you have money, people will sue you whether they have grounds to or not. So I advise fatalism. Don’t waste your time worrying about patent infringement. You’re probably violating a patent every time you tie your shoelaces. At the start, at least, just worry about making something great and getting lots of users. If you grow to the point where anyone considers you worth attacking, you’re doing well.

We do advise the companies we fund to apply for patents, but not so they can sue competitors. Successful startups either get bought or grow into big companies. If a startup wants to grow into a big company, they should apply for patents to build up the patent portfolio they’ll need to maintain an armed truce with other big companies. If they want to get bought, they should apply for patents because patents are part of the mating dance with acquirers. …

Patent trolls are companies consisting mainly of lawyers whose whole business is to accumulate patents and threaten to sue companies who actually make things. Patent trolls, it seems safe to say, are evil. I feel a bit stupid saying that, because when you’re saying something that Richard Stallman and Bill Gates would both agree with, you must be perilously close to tautologies.

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