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Patented Algorithms Essay, Research Paper

Software consists of lists of instructions that a computer reads and

executes. The tasks done by a computer are largely repetitive; the same

chunks of instructions are executed many times. Each chunk performs one

specific task and goes by the label algorithm, a method for accomplishing a

specific task. In the United States, it is possible to obtain a patent for

a software algorithm. One example of a patented software algorithm is the

LZW software algorithm. The LZW patent is owned by Unisys. The algorithm

is commonly used to compress an image file into a format know as the

Graphics Interchange Format (gif). Patent law was created to protect the

rights of the inventor and to encourage innovation. The thinking was that

an inventor would be more inclined to reveal his invention to the public if

he knew that a rival would not steal his design and undercut the original

inventor’s business. By encouraging inventors to share inventions with all,

patent law tries to improve society. Patent law, however, is far from

perfect; particularly in the area of software patents it has failed

miserably to create innovation or to improve society. Like the prophecy of

the witches in Macbeth, things are not always as they seem. Software patents

may appear to be good at first glance, but in reality they stifle innovation

and creativity.

First, the idea of patenting a software algorithm steps into the realm of

absurdity. As previously stated, an algorithm describes a concrete set of

instructions which, upon execution by a computer, perform a specific task.

The above definition, however, includes one erroneous detail; the

instructions in an algorithm need not be executed by a computer. A computer

greatly speeds the execution, but a human being can just as easily, albeit

slower, execute the steps in an algorithm. With this knowledge, one

struggles to grasp what exactly Unisys has patented. Have they patented the

idea of the algorithm, or the actual written software form of the algorithm?

If the patent governs the software form only, then what happens when a

programmer uses a different programming language to write the same algorithm

in a different way? (Many programming languages exist, each with different

grammar). Two programs that look incredibly different may perform exactly

the same task, even when written in the same language. Perhaps Unisys only

holds a patent for their particular implementation of the algorithm;

however, any gif-creating software (using the LZW) violates the patent in

the eyes of the law. If, on the other hand, the idea of the algorithm falls

under the patent, consider the following scenario. Since a human can execute

an algorithm, a human could feasibly memorize an algorithm. By memorizing

the LZW algorithm, a human could violate patent law merely by thinking.

Obviously, patent law does not intend to outlaw certain forms of thinking.

Even without memorization, one could break patent law by using pencil and

paper. The law may see pencil and paper versus computer software as two

completely different things, but they are one in the same. The computer

version merely allows itself to be executed faster by a computer.

Besides being utterly ridiculous, software patents stifle creativity and

innovation. Patent law emerged with the stimulation of creativity and the

benefit of society as two of its goals. It has failed to do this,

especially in the world of software patents. Unisys, as the LZW patent

holder, does not allow gif-producing software to exits unless the person(s)

responsible for the software have purchased a license from Unisys. Upon

doing so, the software becomes bound by terms set by Unisys. This poses a

huge problem with respect to the creativity and especially the societal

benefit goals of the patent law. Specifically, a movement in the software

industry has started in an attempt to produce a body of what is known as

Free Software. Free Software, nothing like so called freeware, refers to

freedom and not price. While it can be obtained for free, the true goal of

freedom means that the software is freely redistributable and freely

modifiable. Free Software attempts to help unify people by promoting

sharing and teamwork in contrast to the philosophy of most commercial

software producers. A Free Software program cannot legally contain the LZW

algorithm because Unisys owns the algorithm and therefore part of the

program. Unisys will not allow free redistribution of its algorithm; it

wants a royalty and some control over the algorithm that it owns.

Standards reign as one of the most important parts of computers, computer

networks, and the Internet. By not allowing Free Software to use a

patented algorithm, the possibility exists that Free Software cannot

support a common computer standard. An alternative may arise and suddenly,

one has two incompatible standards. In a case such as this, the patent

contributed to disunity. By forcing Free Software to start from scratch

instead of building on previous knowledge in the form of a patented

algorithm, the patent deters innovation and forward movement. The gif file

format proliferates the Internet, and true Free Software cannot legally

support it. Two new image file formats meant to replace gif have arisen

which do not use patented algorithms. Incidentally, they offer many

advantages over the gif standard. However, during the transition period,

incompatibilities will surface.

Patent law remains incredibly flawed and does not belong in the software

world. Ideas and knowledge, unpatentable in nature, benefit society when

shared, not when hoarded. The example of Unisys and LZW, by no means the

only patented algorithm, gives a concrete example of the failure of the

software patent to fulfill the original goals of the patent law itself.

One must not think too hard about this subject, however, for fear of

violating a patent.

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