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Patent Happy

When last we visited our friends in Redmond, we wrote about how money can’t buy innovation. Back in December, Carleen Hawn chronicled Microsoft’s $6.8 billion in annual R&D spending–and how little of it is spent on breakthrough innovations. Of every dollar spent on R&D, said Microsoft co-CTO Craig Mundie in the piece, “probably something on the order of 90% is directly in line, or in service of, the existing business groups.” Only one-tenth, he said, “is essentially [invested in] pure research or incubation [of new products].” Yesterday’s New York Times has an interesting piece by Silicon Valley historian and author Randall Stross that adds to that argument, describing Bill Gates’ efforts to produce 3000 patents each year. Stross argues for the end of software patents, which frequently mean minor enhancements like “System and Method for Creating a Note Related to a Phone Call,” rather than large-scale, truly breakthrough innovations. Stross argues that getting rid of “software patents would give Microsoft another chance to repair its relationship with open-source users” and bring an end to “this short, unhappy blip in our patent system’s time line.” What do you think: Are small-scale innovations just as important to protect as quantum leaps?

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