Is piling up patents really a good measure of success?

IBM 64-bit core memory chip
The keynote speaker tonight at MICS is from IBM and is extoling the very significant accomplishments of IBM over the years. He’s chosen, however, to place significant emphasis on how many patents are generated by IBM. They apparently consistently lead in the # of patents generated per company in the U.S., and their presence in Rochester, MN, contributes to Rochester often topping the charts of highest per capita patents in the States.

But is this really a good thing? In the early days of IBM’s work in computing, the bulk of IBM’s patents would have been hardware, which is pretty reasonable. Increasingly, though, these are software patents, which just isn’t a happy thing. To quote Don Knuth:

I strongly believe that the recent trend in patenting algorithms is of benefit only to a very small number of attorneys and inventors, while it is seriously harmful to the vast majority of people who want to do useful things with computers.

Given IBM’s current crucial ties with open source initiatives, it seems particularly unfortunate that their long standing corporate culture continues to extol practices that work directly against the open growth and development of both the field and the public cultures surrounding them.

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