May 17, 2011

Software Patents: One Developer's Perspective

Will the now ubiquitous "Pull-to-Refresh"
 mechanism patented by indie developer
Loren Brichter face similar outrage? 
Many app developers woke up to find some unpleasant mail waiting for them on Monday morning. It appears that Lodsys, a patent holding company, has contacted several independent iOS developers about claims of patent infringement regarding use of the iOS "in app purchase" method. They claim that use of this technology violates U.S. Patent 7,222,078, which they had purchased from inventor Daniel Abelow.

I am not one of the developers who has been contacted by Lodsys, so I can not comment on any of the specifics relating to those individuals.  However, Lodsys, in an effort to clarify their position and quell a public relations storm, created a blog.  You can read their blog here.

Intellectual Property Protection

Patents relating to software methodologies are difficult for many people to grasp. Unlike a more physical, tangible product, software is an abstract creation that develops in someones mind, is written in plain text characters, but then is transformed into something useful (or in the case of may iOS applications, something beautiful).  For many people, if they can't hold something, they have trouble completely understanding it. Or the complexity behind a simple "Click to Purchase" button seems absurd.

Personally, I am the inventor of software methodologies that benefit from intellectual property protection.  They are in a different field, completely unrelated to mobile technology.  In this field, protection of ideas is essential to the longevity and sustainability of the companies.  However, it should be apparent that protection of ideas is essential to the longevity and sustainability of any company.

The most obvious case of this is Apple.  For the most part, computing hardware is a commodity.  One might be designed and packaged by Jon Ive, but when you tear them down, they have basically the same components.  What is the difference between the iPhone and Android?  Software Patents.  Apple's superior iOS operating system (and the software patents that protect it) is the reason that consumers prefer the iPhone and Apple has the revenue and resources to continue to innovate.

Pull to Refresh Angst in the Developer Community

The immediate ripple through the developer community was one of say the least.  It seemed unfathomable that a patent holding company would go after indie developers, when the biggest fish in the world, Apple, was on the hook.  In Lodsys' blog, one of the most interesting claims they make is that Apple licenses this patent for their use; although it is not clear in what capacity (i.e. for their software or for the iOS SDK).

As a developer, I would have thought that a feature included in the official SDK would have been adequately licensed to cover use by developers.  I would have thought that this was one of the expenses covered by the 70/30 split in app sales revenues with Apple.  Still, most of the developer outrage was not as well placed, but instead focused on vilifying Lodsys and proclamations that software patents are evil.

This situation made me remember a similar indie developer outrage...but from the other point of view.  In the fall of 2010, Facebook was chastised by indie developers for "borrowing" the innovative "Pull to Refresh" mechanism that was pioneered by Loren Brichter in the Tweetie iPhone app by AteBits  Facebook later apologized for what they called an "oversight" and fixed the code attribution.  When Tweetie was acquired by Twitter, it become known that Brichter had filed a patent for the "Pull to Refresh" mechanism.

If this patent is awarded, will there be similar outrage in the indie developer community when AteBits (one of their own) seeks licensing fees for a feature that has become ubiquitous in many iOS apps?

In Closing

As an active developer, inventor and scientist, I have a strong belief in the protection of intellectual property...especially software.  Yes, there are different levels of patent enforcement (and Lodsys may be on the bottom rung), but the entire system can not be disparaged because of this.

To many indie developers software patents may look evil, but it serves their interests just as well, if not better, as those of large corporations.  It is what prevents a large studio stealing all of your ideas and reproducing your games.  It is what allows you to invest time and resources, knowing that you can benefit from your innovation and diligence.  It is what will allow indie developer Loren Brichter to knock on the door at Facebook and tell Mark Zuckerberg, "We need to talk.".