All of the major innovations in software have occurred without recourse to patents. From the creation of the graphical user interface to the word processor to the web browser, consumers and society have benefited from the same ideas being used by different competitors.
Some readers might point out that you can only patent an “implementation”, not an idea. But, as Chris Bidmead points out:
In practice patent lawyers have always attempted to file in a way that generalises the implementation to the point where any practical use of the idea is covered by the patent – tantamount to patenting the idea.
Fortunately, we weren’t locked into using WordStar, the first commercially successful word processor, for twenty years. Even though no one owned the idea of a word processor, companies still entered the market, and Microsoft has been able to keep investors very happy with the money it has gained through being better than the likes of WordStar and WordPerfect. The competitors in the word processor market kept copying each others’ ideas, and that was great because it led to a race to the top. High spending on R&D was a prerequisite of staying in the market. Had WordStar owned a patent on the idea of computer-based typewriting of documents, or on important aspects of the word processor, we would all be worse off today.
Innovation in software occurs because of copyright, not because of patents. Copyright enables people to protect their work. But we are all better off – we all benefit from greater innovation – when companies are able to compete free from the shackles of (software) patent monopolies. Established, vested interests – most notably Microsoft – want to prevent competition. The European Parliament fortunately voted against EU-wide software patents. In order to increase innovation, surely it is time for software patents to be fully repealed?