Patents gone wild
By wyllys on Aug 23, 2004
There has been much discussion (and the usual gnashing-of-teeth) recently over the recent patent by Microsoft for a "process configured to run under an administrative privilege level". While I have not actually read the patent (reasons explained below), it seems like an obvious case where there was plenty of prior-art and that this patent is completely bogus.
The popular sudo utility has been around since 1980 (according to their brief history ). Solaris has had the "RBAC" system for several years and I'm sure there are other examples of eerily similar projects in existence long before MS thought to patent the idea. Why does the USPTO grant patents like this? It boggles the mind.
The MS patent may have originally been intended to cover their LSA system, extensively used by the Windows 2000 (XP, 2003, etc etc) system to manage privileges and delegation among users and processes in the Win2K environment. However, as it seems to be worded (or so I've read from other sources) it is very broad and could be considered to cover sudo and RBAC as well.
Why haven't I actually read the patent, you ask? Because US Patent law actually discourages one from investigating such things. If one actually reads a patent, then that person becomes liable for triple damages if they are found to be infringing. Conventional wisdom is that its better to be ignorant and thus not entirely culpable than to be well informed and thus be held to a higher standard in court. So, if you are a software engineer with a cool idea, its best to not even try to see if there is a patent on it. Its better to claim ignorance than to be found guilty of willfully violating someone elses patent.
So, the USPTO, being a typically understaffed and under-budgeted department, happily grants patents for just about anything and leaves it to the courts to decide if they are really worthy or not. This gives big corporations like Microsoft, IBM, and even Sun good reason to try and patent everything possible, even if they don't ever try to enforce those patents. There is little downside or penalty even if they are found to have patented something that is prior art. They can fight it out in court if there is a major discrepancy, which usually means the side that can afford the biggest and best team of lawyers will eventually win, mostly because the little guy with the so-called prior art doesn't have the resources to fight it.
The patent system is clearly broken, at least from the perspective of a software engineer and the sad thing is that its unlikely to improve in the current fiscal environment. A government that has turned a 100 billion dollar budgeet surplus in a half-TRILLIAN dollar deficit can hardly be expected to properly fund something like this.
\*sigh\*, maybe I should just take off my tinfoil hat and join the collective...