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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Beyond outrageous

Mark Pilgrim recently posted a rant about how he was "forced" into submitting a patent by his former employer, IBM. I worked for IBM for 4 years and can attest to how maniacally focused they are on generating software patents.

Periodically, there are "patent scrubs" during which employees are reminded via email, during team meetings, and by senior architects that they should be thinking of ideas to patent. It also happens to be the case that senior managers typically have a patent quota written into their goals. I can remember some line managers begging us for more patent ideas because X (some manager a few levels above my manager) hadn't reached his patent quota yet. Like Mark, I found it disgusting. However, I clearly didn't find this experience as traumatic as Mark did. I think I authored or co-authored 4 or 5 patents during my time at IBM. A drop in the ocean as compared to the master inventors who seem to make a career (and livelihood) out of generating as many patent applications as possible, regardless of the insignificance of the invention.

What I take issue with is Mark's need to point out that he was coerced into filing a patent application and to justify it by pointing out that he has a mortgage. Lots of people have mortgages. Many more people with more significant financial responsibilities than that are asked to do much more heinous things than file a patent in order to keep those jobs. Get some perspective Mark!

Lastly Mark, I think you should be thankful. If during your time at IBM the only thing that made you cry was having to file a patent, then you've escaped that hell-hole relatively unscathed.

I confess that IBM's drive for patents was something that always made me uncomfortable. That having been said, at least at IBM you receive the assurance that patents will only be used defensively, and in fact some might come in handy with this Microsoft brouhaha. But the switch to offensive use of ridiculous patents is always only a management change away.

In a broader sense it's not something that, competitively, they have any choice in; with a large engineering workforce it's to their advantage to collect patents. But that doesn't mean that we have to be happy about it.
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