Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Startup update and patents

We're still in stealth mode, so no details. Our product testing is going well and the beta release on 1/1/2006 looks like a realistic target. I get to add patent filings to the list of other things I'm doing. In looking for prior art and related USPTO applications, I can't help but think that (a) academic CS research can have a really low quality threshold and (b) the software patent situation is getting out of hand.

I say (a) because of all the nutty ideas I see academics publishing that will never work in the real world. If the basic idea were deep I could see pursuing it despite impracticality. But in these papers I see obvious, trivial ideas pursued (presumably consuming significant NSF, ONR, DARPA or other funding) in great detail. On the positive side, I suppose these lame projects still serve the purpose of training students. (BTW, I am referring here specifically to applied security research, where I think real world practicality is very relevant, not something more fundamental like algorithms.)

I say (b) because of all the silly things that have been granted patents. Officially, the threshold is that an idea be "non-obvious", but many, such as the Amazon One-Click patent clearly fail that test. (Amazon has had a patent for many years now on a one-click process for online purchasing.) In security, inventors have been issued patents on ideas as vague as "method for detecting dangerous programs by matching code patterns against a database" or similar. Since companies have to protect themselves in this crazy environment, they have all become profligate submitters of applications to the USPTO. Microsoft alone has a target of 3000 patents per year! The whole system is clogged, and clogged with junk!

It is obvious why there are problems at the USPTO. It takes a very smart examiner, who keeps up with the rapid pace of technology development, to understand what is important or novel in a complex patent application. Anyone smart enough to do a good job is also smart enough to make several times as much on the other side working at an IP law firm. Also, it is not clear that there are any incentives in place to keep an examiner from having loose standards. A huge backlog of patents piling up on your desk ensures a negative merit review, but what counterbalancing mechanism is in place to discourage granting of bad patents? In rare cases, after years of litigation, a bad patent might be overturned, but are there any repercussions for the original examiner?

OK, enough ranting. As an amusing aside, this Business2.0 article lists a dozen or so ideas that VCs would like to fund. One of the ideas listed is something I previously worked on with a collaborator. We built a working prototype and shopped it to several funds before dropping it for a more promising idea (our present project). I guess we were talking to the wrong VCs! :-)


Anonymous said...

1-click is non-obvious? How come it took so long for someone to come up with it then?

Steve Hsu said...

I think I meant one-click is *not* non-obvious (i.e., it is obvious).

No one did it before Amazon because there was not e-commerce to speak of at that point.

But novelty and non-obviousness are not the same thing.

Carson C. Chow said...

What's the name of your company again?

Steve Hsu said...

It's a secret for now...

Anonymous said...

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