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Automating Invention is Robert Plotkin's blog on the impact of computer-automated inventing on the future of invention and patent law.

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About Robert Plotkin

I started programming computers when I was in fifth grade and my school received two brand new Tandy/Radio Shack TRS-80s. They were black and white and had a whopping 16K of memory (about 1/100,000th of today’s personal computers). My first lesson was learning how to write a two-line program that would display my name repeatedly on the screen. I was hooked.

Now, about a quarter of a century later, I am a full-time patent lawyer and part-time law professor, and I still spend most of my time working with and thinking about computers. Most of what I do as a solo patent lawyer is to help my clients obtain patents for their computer-related inventions. I also advise my clients on whether they are infringing the patent rights of their competitors and vice versa. As an academic, I think, write, and teach about the intersection between computer technology – primarily software – and the law. One semester a year I teach a course called "Software and the Law" at the Boston University School of Law, in which I give students some background on how computers work and provide an overview of how various areas of law apply to software.

I began thinking about computer-automated invention in earnest in the summer of 2001. My interest was piqued by what may at first glance appear to be an unrelated question – what does the word "software" mean? I had become frustrated with the fact that, in debates about intellectual property protection for software, everyone seemed to attach a different meaning to the word "software." Some used "software" to refer to source code (whether written on paper or stored in digital memory), others to object code, yet others to the abstract procedure carried out by a computer program, and still others to a programmer's ideas about a program. I began to think that the legal disputes could be moved forward if everyone agreed on what they meant by "software" and similar terms.

After thinking and writing about this problem for a while I concluded that although clearly defining the term "software" would be helpful, it wasn't the end of the game. I realized that previous attempts to apply intellectual property law to software had failed to recognize that the act of programming a computer to perform a new and useful process was a kind of inventing that both resembled and differed from old-fashioned Thomas Edison-style inventing in ways that were significant for patent law. More specifically, I realized that computers had begun to automate the process of invention by enabling programmers to implement new and useful functions merely by writing abstract (logical) descriptions of them, without performing any physical design or experimentation. I described this way of thinking about computer programming and suggested ways to improve the patent system as it applies to software in a law review article published in 2003.

Although some people are put to sleep just by hearing the words "software" and "law," you obviously aren't one of them if you're still reading. I have found the legal implications of computer-automated invention so engrossing that I have continued to write and speak about them, and more recently to launch this web site. I don't think it is far-fetched to claim that we are on the edge of a revolution in computer-automated invention, and that this revolution has profound implications not only for the law, but for creativity, ethics, and high-tech industry as well. The rapid emergence of technologies such as genetic algorithms for automating the design of real-world machines is merely the latest piece of evidence that something significant is happening. Although I don't know whether we will hit the knee of the curve in one year or twenty, I do know that now is the time to address the implications of computer-automated invention proactively, so that we aren’t forced to address them reactively later.

When I’m not thinking about software and the law, I enjoy studying karate, playing piano, and sharing my life with my partner Melissa and dog Maggie, both of whom have been subjected to more late-night debates about software and the law than any human or canine should have to endure.

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