Paper 3: Software Patents / Computer Crime
Comp 317/417, Dordal
Topic option 1: Do software patents need reform?
Paul Graham wrote
nothing special about physical [machines] that should make them
patentable, and the software equivalent
Patents for physical machines have, arguably, helped advance society by
creating an incentive for innovation. But some feel that software patents,
in particular, have not been socially useful. Do we need to revise the
rules for software patents?
If yes, do you have modest technical changes in the
patent process in mind, or do you want to scrap software patents entirely,
or something in between?
If no, say why; you might pick a common objection or
two to software patents and explain why the objection is not sufficient to
justify change, or you might argue that, whatever the drawbacks, software
patents do create a socially useful incentive for invention, or
you might address a combination of these.
Some people think that nothing should be patentable; the
latter argument is made in Michele Boldrin and David Levine's The
Case Against Patents, and their longer work Against Intellectual
Monopoly. If you think that all patents are equally bad, feel free to make
that argument, but please make your position clear. If you argue against
all patents, you should be sure you understand your argument's
implications for, say, the pharmaceuticals industry.
Here are a few justifications that have been advanced for considering
software patents to be fundamentally different, and thus deserving of
Others have argued that the only specialness of software patents is that the
patent office allegedly has difficulty conducting patent examinations for
software. Still others argue that it is the existence of open source that
makes software patents unique.
- Pretty much all software implementation is straightforward
engineering. No experimentation is needed.
- Many software ideas are obvious once the appropriate
technical context has developed.
- Software is often about abstraction, and abstract ideas
- Software has much greater generality than physical machines
- Algorithms are fundamentally mathematical facts rather than inventions
- Many software "inventions" are straightforward implementations of
- Many software patents are in fact functional patents, which
have long been legally suspect
- Often the "creativity" in software is simply realizing that, yes,
there is a market for the product
- A 20-year patent lifetime for software is just much too long
Discuss both sides, and come to a
conclusion. Your conclusion should either support one side or the
other (perhaps with qualifications).
Here are a few more points to think about if you need suggestions. You
don't have to address them all (you don't have to address any of
- Incentives to innovation and development
- Litigation costs as a negative social side-effect
- Inventor's rights
- Public's rights to shared ideas
- Conflicts between patented software and open source
- Whether software is "too abstract" to be patentable in general
(Bilski's process was held to be too abstract)
- Many claimed software inventions are straightforward implementations
using existing components
Topic option 2: What should the rules be for computer crime?
When someone steals a piece of property, there is seldom a question whether
a crime has been committed. But Randal Schwartz clearly did not think he did
anything wrong, and many disinterested observers in the
system-administration community at the time agreed. Similarly, while Aaron
Swartz certainly knew he was bypassing something, many have
claimed he had no reason to think what he was doing might be criminal.
Terry Childs may not have intended to be cooperative, but it seems clear he
had no idea that he could end up in prison for four years. Jeremy Hammond
certainly appears to have understood some might see his actions as criminal,
but he felt what he was doing was a form of civil disobedience.
Certainly some judges and many prosecutors feel that they are quite capable
of determining which computer crimes are "serious" and which are not. Should
the rest of us trust their discretion? Crimes involving firearms are given
hefty additional penalties; should the same be true of crimes involving a
The CFAA criminalizes "unauthorized access". This makes sense by analogy
with physical property, but there is quite a bit of ambiguity as to what
constitutes "unauthorized" access to a computer. Unauthorized use of
physical property pretty much means stealing it; unauthorized use of a
computer can cover a wide range of things.
For example, the CFAA, in theory, criminalizes creating a second Facebook
account, or use of Google search by minors (before March 2013). These uses
are explicitly "unauthorized" by the sites' Terms of Service. When Bidders'
Edge got in trouble with E-Bay for collecting data about E-Bay auctions, it
was because they had to create E-Bay accounts to get access to the system,
and they used these accounts in ways contrary to the E-Bay terms of service.
Using a workplace computer to check out Facebook, or even to check news
headlines during lunch, is often "unauthorized" by your employer.
On the other hand, Lori
Drew was acquitted of violating the MySpace terms of service, in a
case in which Drew created a fake MySpace account that may have contributed
to the suicide of Megan Meier.
Here is the central question: is a law against "unauthorized access" a good
idea, or must there be some other standard as well, and, if so, what?
Some possibilities are
- the perpetrator caused actual harm (a problem with this approach is
that harm is notoriously hard to evaluate)
- the perpetrator acted with malicious intent, ie intent to
cause harm (the government would have trouble proving that for most of
our examples here)
Another way to summarize this question is simply "Is the CFAA too broad?
If not, why? If so, how might it be fixed?"
A closely related question is that of restitution: should a hacker be
obligated to pay costs that clearly are part of normal security
procedures? Sometimes hackers are asked to repay system owners for the
costs of basic retroactive patch installation.
A brief argument in favor of the CFAA approach is that computer crimes
often have unforeseeable effects, and so a very broad proscription is in
The US Supreme Court is currently reviewing one aspect of the CFAA in US
v Van Buren.
Your paper (either topic) will be graded primarily on organization (that is,
how you lay out your sequence of paragraphs), focus (that is, whether you
stick to the topic), and the nature and completeness of your arguments.
It is essential that all material
from other sources be enclosed in quotation marks (or set off as a block
quote), and preferably with a citation to the original source as well.
Expected length: 3-5 pages (1000+ words)