Inventions must be novel and nonobvious, not complex

In August I debated the impact of software patents at the Computer History Museum (you can watch the debate here). I asked members of the audience how many were programmers or had  written software. A large number of hands went up. I then asked  those people to put their hands down if they thought what they did wasn’t creative and that anyone could do it. I was really surprised when a large percentage of hands went down.

I’ve been thinking about that, and I’ve come to three conclusions.  First, many programmers just aren’t very good at what they do. Many  of them have simply learned to copy others’ code (see  Is Googling Replacing Programming?) or maintain someone else’s code. Second, many programmers underestimate their abilities. Programmers tend to be introverted and not ones to brag about their skills. Of course there are exceptions, but programming is generally a solitary endeavor.

Third, many programmers believe that to be patentable, something must be very complicated. But that’s not true. Section 102 of the U.S. Patent Act states that an invention must be novel, and Section 103 states that it must be nonobvious. There is no requirement that it be complex.

Many inventions are very useful and yet also very simple. Searching Google, I found almost 4,000 patents involving paper clips. I found 27,000 patents with the word “needle” in the title and over 9,000 patents for kinds of spoons. There are nearly 600 patents involving rubber bands. Some recent patents include a water sprinkler for dogs (USPTO # 7,997,229) and a waterproof cover for a camera (USPTO # 7,991,274). My point is that some inventions are simple and some are complex, but they all are novel and no one else thought of them. If you tend to dismiss software patents, remember that what makes an invention patentable is not whether you could have done that, but whether you actually did.