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Kodak Vs. Java

Is There a Case?

Although Kodak's victory could be damaging to Java, is the suit itself frivolous? The most critical criterion for a software patent is that the invention must be a nonobvious improvement to prior works. "This determination is made by deciding whether the invention sought to be patented would have been obvious to one of ordinary skill in the art," according to BitLaw (www. bitlaw. com). The assessment of what's obvious is indeed subjective.

You can't fault Kodak for asserting its patent rights. Businesses exist to make money, and patent lawsuits are a proven source of income. Working in Kodak's favor is the fact that Microsoft settled with Wang Software in 1995 over one of the same patents in a dispute over OLE. Microsoft's current .Net platform uses similar technology.

Still, the U.S. Patent Office--either because it doesn't understand the nuances of digital technology or because it is too understaffed to carry out the proper research--is prone to handing out too many patents for obvious software advances. As a result, it's stifling innovation by locking up not only the code, but also the original idea, for 20 years. In a software industry that relies upon reuse and patterns, that means lots of extra time and money spent on work-arounds to avoid patent claims.

Several independent groups have risen up to stymie what they see as software-patent proliferation. The nonprofit Software Patent Institute (www. aims to make it easier for patent officials and others to find descriptions of existing software technology, to help ensure that patents aren't granted for prior art. The Electronic Frontier Foundation ( and the Public Patent Foundation ( are working to overturn patents that they think have been issued in error. The League for Programming Freedom ( is lobbying to end software patents altogether. (For more on the software-patent issue, see ID# 1509colpreston.)

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