Magazine

What Software Patents Can -- And Can't -- Do


I disagree with Andy Reinhardt's commentary "Inventing a better patent law" (European Business, Dec. 1). Software patents are in many ways similar to business-method patents that have traditionally been excluded from patentability -- for good reasons. Every other line of software can be considered an invention. In practice, it is not those small little "inventions" that determine the success of a piece of software. It is the consistency of the whole that is decisive. Our present-day software giants such as Microsoft, Oracle, and Sun Microsystems became big without the help of patents.

Patents play virtually no role in software innovation. Rather, they are either attempts to block entry to newcomers in fast-developing fields or attempts to thwart those attempts by amassing counterclaims. The large number of spurious software patents is not the result of inefficient patent offices. As soon as you allow software patents, they are inevitable.

One final word about Reinhardt's statement that it would be a waste if all the software patents that have so far been awarded by the European Patent office were voided: These patents have been awarded despite a clear law that forbade them. Law-abiding citizens like me who kept to the law and did not file claims or amass evidence of "prior art" would be severely duped if those patents were to get recognized.

Wim Roffel

Leiden, Netherlands Kathleen Kerwin is too hasty in writing off the value of delivering the basics in a reliable way ("When flawless isn't enough," Marketing, Dec. 8). Despite decades of talk about quality and "customer first," managers still don't recognize that what customers want is products and services that provide the basics as reliably as the sunrise -- and that most firms fail to do this. The good news? Those that get it right get huge rewards.

Kerwin says that Toyota Motor Co.'s styling elicits yawns. But its market capitalization is more than that of General Motors, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler combined. We see the same in many industries. Ryanair's market cap is also greater than that of British Airways or Lufthansa. And Tesco, Britain's top supermarket, kept the basics in focus when it launched the world's most successful online grocer.

Detroit will need to match Japanese quality and reliability for years before consumers believe they've really cracked the basics.

Se?n Meehan

IMD

Lausanne, Switzerland

Patrick Barwise

London Business School

London

I wish the author had elaborated on the quality rankings of the Big Three individually, rather than grouping them together. Kerwin writes: "Every one of the Big Three has been steadily improving. Yet all three still rank below average." While technically true, including the fact that General Motors Corp.'s score is only one point below the average (134 problems per 100, vs. 133) would have weakened the article's thesis, and was therefore omitted. Also, because of the behind-the-scenes math involved in interpreting the data, only four manufacturers are "above average," while 10 manufacturers are "below average."

Additionally, J.D. Power & Associates' Vehicle Dependability Study (which uses data acquired over years of vehicle ownership instead of just months as with the Initial Study) shows that GM is "above average," with 264 problems reported compared to the average of 273 (per 100). Also, GM scored well above Volkswagen, and effectively tied with BMW, while the Koreans filled in the bottom of the list.

Branden Neish

Shelby Township, Mich.


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