Multifaceted IT company gen-i is adamant that software should be patentable like more material kinds of intellectual property, and it has a patent pending on novel data archiving technology to prove it.
The concept has thus jumped the first hurdle towards a full patent and has a certificate to demonstrate that the Intellectual Property Office (Iponz), which controls patents, thinks the idea worthy of such protection.
This is despite the low historic number of software patents and the Ministry of Economic Development’s desire to open the question for discussion with arguments for and against (see MED asks for views on software patents).
“If I combine pulleys, levers and gear wheels into a novel machine, or I mix chemicals to make something new, I wouldn’t have much difficulty getting a patent, and I don’t see why it should be any different for software,” says gen-i chief Garth Biggs.
And it’s rather misleading to talk about “a patent on software”, he says; “anyone can write software. It’s the idea that the important thing.” And that idea, he says, should be protected in the same way, regardless of the mode of its expression.
To the MED’s point that patenting software may retard innovation by not allowing others to build on developments, he says he’d like to see an analysis of the effect of patents in that regard in other areas of invention.
“There are companies in the US that can patent a DNA sequence that’s part of me. Is that retarding the development of biotechnology? I suspect not by much.”
The idea in the case of gen-i’s archival software is to make the process straightforward and transparent, both in archiving and in retrieving a file from the archive. The software will note files of a certain date which are not being used and will archive them automatically.
“But if next day you decide you want one of those files back, you just access it as you always did, as though it was in your own file store, and it will be put back there.”
There’s no need to make a request to an archive manager to move the file back into local storage.
Like two other pieces of software gen-i plans to sell, the archive tool was originally developed for an individual client.
“We’ve been very customer-centric, very focused on the needs of our particular customer at the time. That’s a strength, but it can also be a weakness. When we finished the job, we’d say ‘that was a good piece of work; now what’s the next job; where’s the next customer?’ Rather than saying. ‘would anyone else find what we’ve just developed useful?’
“So about a year ago, 30 gen-i people went offsite to look at the things we’d done that might be packageable as intellectual property.” On the first round, the company found about 100 candidates, though these were later whittled down.
Biggs acknowledges gen-i doesn’t have the structure to sell to a mass market at present, but it is in negotiation with “a couple of multinational companies” with a view to engaging them as partners and using their distribution networks. Eventually, gen-i aims to draw about 10% of its revenue from packaged software sales, he says.
One of the other products is in remote management of the assets on a computer network. It’s a well-trodden path, he agrees, and solutions are already on the market.
But customer feedback and research convinced gen-i that there were “holes” in the market.