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Product Design, Embedded Devices and Software Patents

From: eth1
Subject: Product Design, Embedded Devices and Software Patents
Date: 28 Dec 2006 16:18:18 -0800
User-agent: G2/1.0

Hi All,

I'm a programmer with an alegiance to open source who has currently
come up with a novel product idea that is causing me some distress re:
software patents since it is a bit of an edge case.  I think it's worth
considering this case explicitly, however, since as embedded systems
become cheaper and more advanced we'll most likely see many products
come to market which are non-computer devices that have computer
backends and as such fall somewhere between old-fashioned inventions
and software patents and so are a bit ambiguous.

Here's an example: say I've developed a really novel speedometer.  It
uses the transformation of sprites to indicate speed in some totally
different way that improves on the traditional dial and relies on a CPU
under the hood.  The patent would probably consist then of a flowchart
outlining the basic algorithm ("measure speed, apply transform X,
render to display" along with sketches of example outputs to convey the
design principles attached to the algorithm.

This does not seem to be a "software patent" in the same way that
patenting an algorithm ("Generating a Display from an Object List" for
example) would: it is a specific application of an algorithm, and while
I'd want to prevent other speedometer manufacturers from stealing the
design I'm not trying to prevent innovators in other domains from using
some basic unit of programming.

On the other hand there seems to be a slippery slop lurking here.  It's
not clear how such a patent would be substantially differentiated from
a patent of interface elements such as scrollbars or wireless signal
strength indicators.  It seems likely that we'll see more and more
products for the home, office, etc. that are CPUs with embedded OSs and
custom, very specific interfaces.  Is the requirement of a just patent
that it must include the entire device and not just some aspect of
program (assuming there is such a thing as a just patent)?

Another course of questions has to do with how to develop a product in
the current business environment using patents in a way that is as
unproblematic as possible: Is it sufficient/acceptable to patent a
specific implementation of a novel interface paradigm so long as one
makes the implementation available to the public for further
development and innovation under a free license? How can one work with
a patent attorney and potential funders to sell them on making a more
restrictive patent that protects the specific invention but cannot be
abused by being extended to cover unanticiapted future applications and

I'm a neophyte to the patent debates and these lists, but I look
forward to hearing the views on this class of patents from those
familiar with the terrain.

On a final note: I anticipate some people might say that this is more
of copyright issue, but I disagree as the object of the registered item
is not a particular image or expression but is a way of processing and
representing information.



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