LES EARNEST

MR. EARNEST:  Les Earnest, speaking for myself.

Based on my 40 years of experience in the computer system development, much
of it before software patents were introduced, I believe that the alleged
connection between such patents and the stimulation of innovation is tenuous
at best and probably negative.  Let me confess that even though I oppose the
continuation of software patents, as a defensive measure I've applied for
some that have been granted.

When I entered the field as a programmer in 1954 there were only about a
hundred of us in the whole world, and each of us was turning out thousands
of inventions each year, or maybe it was hundreds depending on your
standards, but a lot.  Software was given the same kinds of protection as
other documentation, namely copyright and trade secret.

It was certainly a good thing that there were no software patents because my
colleagues and I could have papered over the field and retired for 17 years
or so to collect royalties.  Since patents didn't exist, we kept working and
had quite a good time doing it, sharing ideas and standing on each other's
shoulders to see how high we could reach.

In 1956 I went to MIT to help design the Sage Air Defense System, it was a
technological marvel full of inventions, both hardware and software.  It was
the first real_time computer system and depended on the large software
system that was cooperatively written by many people.  That was the first
such system.

This project helped transfer a lot of technology from MIT to IBM, but almost
nothing was patented.  Dozens of Sage systems were eventually deployed
around the country, each with a vacuum tube computer that covered a floor
area about the size of a football field and an air conditioning system to
match.

It is fortunate that this power, that the Soviet Union, never attacked the
U.S. in that era, because the marvelous technology in Sage had several
Achilles' heels that would have caused it to fail catastrophically under
attack.  However, those short comings were kept well hidden from Congress
and the public, and as a result the so_called command control communications
technology became a major growth industry for the military industrial
complex.  The most recent example of that line of development being the
grossly defective Star Wars system, but that's another story.

Beginning in 1959 I developed the first pen_based computer system that
reliably recognized cursive writing.  I believe that it was more reliable
than the 1993 version of Apple's Newton.  But the idea of getting a patent
on such a thing never occurred to me or my colleagues.  It wouldn't have
done much good anyway because the computer on which it ran filled a rather
large room, and the 17_year life of the patent would have expired before
small portable computers became available.

In order to cope with a personal shortcoming, I developed the first spelling
checker in 1966.

(laughter)

I didn't think that was much of an invention and was rather surprised when
many other organizations took copies.  And, of course, nobody patented
things like that.

When John McCarthy and I organized the Stanford Artificial Intelligence
laboratory, and I served as its executive officer for 15 years, there was a
great deal of innovation that came out of there, including the first
interactive computer_aided design system for computers and other electronic
devices, early robotics and speech recognition systems, the software
invention that became the heart of the Yamaha music synthesizer, document
compilation and printing technologies that later came to be called desktop
publishing.  The Sun workstation was invented there.  And the guy who
invented public key cryptography was in our lab.

Few of these inventions were patented in the early period, but we later
began to file for such coverage.  The pace of innovation I note has
necessarily slowed over time as the technology matures, but concurrently, of
course, the amount of patent protection has increased.  I suspect that these
changes are connected.

Yesterday in this forum, my friend Paul Heckle said that software patents
stimulate new businesses.  I'm afraid that Paul has that backwards.  In
fact, new businesses stimulate software patents.  Venture capitalists want
the comfort of patents on products that are being brought into the market
even though know_how is far more important in most cases.

In 1980 I co_founded Imagen Corporation, which developed and manufactured
the first commercial desktop publishing systems based on laser printers.  We
filed for software patents to try to appease the venture capitalists, even
though it was not actually important to our business, I believe. Of course,
they didn't understand and the lawyers were happy to take our money.

Based on my experiences, I also joined the League for Programming Freedom to
help resist the patent conspiracy and I later served for a time on its board
of directors.

In summary, for many years there has been a great deal of innovation, there
was a great deal of innovation in the computer software field with no
patents, under the quote, stimulation of software patents the pace now seems
to have slowed.  I believe that there may be a connection, not only because
of the time that must be devoted to covering and deciding what to cover and
filing a patent application, but also because patents are owned by other
organizations, many of them in fact based on prior art, and constitute a
mine field that must be carefully navigated.  I recommend a return to the
good old days when success depended on moving faster than the other guys
rather than trying to catch them in a trap.

Thank you.

COMMISSIONER LEHMAN:  Thank you very much, Mr. Earnest.

That will conclude our morning session, and we'll reconvene at 2 o'clock, at
which time our first witness will be Richard Stallman.

(Luncheon recess taken)

COMMISSIONER LEHMAN:  We can get underway.  It seems to be a usual human
tendency of somehow or other always running a couple of minutes late.  So
perhaps we can start right out again by calling Richard Stallman forward,
please.

I assume you're __ you're just listed as Richard Stallman, but I assume you
still have the affiliation with the Free Software Foundation?


Back to The San Jose Index

Forward to Richard Stallman