Recently, the US patent office called for comments on the process of patenting AI software. I suppose this is a response to Google’s recent ML patents, or Oracle vs. Google, or the many software patent trolls. Most people I’ve talked to find software patents apalling and a threat to intellectual freedom: similar to patenting the fact that 2+2=4.

I’m mostly in this camp. Despite claims that Google will only use these to counter-sue any other company that tries to sue it (a so-called “defensive patent” strategy) it seems Google is failing at “not being evil.”

However, we have to remember the motivation for patents: to quickly spread innovation through the country. If an inventor is guaranteed a monopoly on an idea for some time, they’ll be much more willing to publicize their idea and how to replicate it. This will, in the long run, improve the economy.

This can make sense for software, but Google’s seq2seq and Dropout patents totally miss the point: the idea is already well known. You can find it in many textbooks; it does the public no good to know about Google’s “invention” because everyone already knows about it. These patents should not have been granted; the public should have had the option to say “we don’t want your ideas, we already know about this.” (Although Geoff Hinton probably deserved these patents in 2014.)

In an ideal world, people would patent their hard work, improve the public by sharing it, and get fairly compensated for that improvement. To keep the spirit of patents, I think we need to figure out the “hard part” of constructing AI technology and how to incentivize sharing that. And in every case, we have to weigh that difficulty against how it ultimately improves or impedes public progress.

I dislike software patents in general because the difficulty tends to be low and the public impact negative. For example, patenting an API or a standard (like Java) is a categorically bad idea. Not only is it pretty easy to design an API, but the patent ultimately destabilizes public infrastructure via a chilling effect. The trade-off isn’t worth it: all negatives, no positives.

Libraries and open-source software are more difficult to create, but they’re nice precisely they’re free. Patenting an essential part of the software stack feels like pulling bricks out of the middle of a pyramid. It’s not clear how that will go. Besides, if you want to make money off software, plenty of successful Saas business models exist (like AWS or AI services).

Now, AI innovations require a lot of experimentation and work to prove, and patentability could encourage corporate investment in R&D. That would be good. But it’s not clear how much any individual contribution should be worth. If I use an ML model with dropout in my business, and you sue me, how much was that usage of dropout worth? All my revenue? Half? If I didn’t use it, my model accuracy might have gone down by 5%. How do we value that 5%?

And how do we detect and enforce these patents? If I use variational dropout, does that count? What about neuron pruning? That’s like permanent dropout. And what if someone proves mathematically that dropout is the most optimal regularization technique? Are we all supposed to just keep using subpar methods, for fear of being sued by some big company?

All in all, I can’t really envision a world in which software or AI patents postively impact coporate incentives. But hopefully I’ll be proved wrong.