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Software Patents Programming IT Technology

Is The Lone Coder Dead? 809

Posted by timothy
from the rms-played-by-anthony-hopkins dept.
CyNRG writes "The little guy. The one-person software company. Can it still exist today? That's me. I'm once again, after many years, writing my own commercial software to sell. A few things have changed: the patent feeding frenzy. This is my main concern. My perception is that one must verify that you don't infringe on any patents when developing new cool software, and that the explosion of patents granted by the USPTO has reached epic proportions. If this perception is true, then that makes it almost impossible for the Lone Coder to create something new that doesn't infringe on other patents. The amount of money required to perform the due diligence research seems like it would be greater than the amount of money needed to develop the software, or even the total revenues that the software could ever generate. Please someone tell me I'm wrong!" Is he?
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Is The Lone Coder Dead?

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  • I am not a lawyer (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Elwood P Dowd (16933) <judgmentalist@gmail.com> on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @08:39PM (#10838079) Journal
    Due diligence?

    Patent enforcement is the job of the patent holder. You do not need to do "due diligence" unless you are basing your design on someone else's patented product. Or you are attempting to publish your own patent.
  • Bittorrent (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jerometremblay (513886) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @08:40PM (#10838090) Homepage
    Take Bittorrent for example. Does anyone know if he actually lives of it or not?

    If that kind of success is not enough, I don't know what is.
  • Not to worry... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Dustismo (643898) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @08:42PM (#10838112) Homepage
    As long as your source is 'closed', you shouldn't have much to worry about. Cause how is anybody supposed to know that you used a patented algorithm in your code unless they reverse engineered it--which is illegal according to the DMCA. Go nuts.
  • Dada Mail and Myself (Score:3, Interesting)

    by skazatmebaby (110364) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @08:48PM (#10838164) Homepage
    Well, I've been working on Dada Mail (formely Mojo) [dadamail.org] since I started college (graduated last summer)

    It's basically fed me for the past three years now; I work on it primarily alone - it's also open source, I make money on a "Pro" distribution, selling an advanced downloadable manual, installation and consultation services.

    Very incredibly low overhead for me to run the "shop", and it's still somewhat fun to do.

    Oh and I graduated in art - no CS (or math, sans an accounting class) background.

  • Re:Yes (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Frennzy (730093) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @08:59PM (#10838266) Homepage
    Individuals CAN build a car...or a motorcycle...or just about anything else...and sell it for a premium to those who appreciate it. Software is a bit different...because it has no 'sex appeal'.
  • by richcoder (539438) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @09:00PM (#10838284)
    What about those of us that wish to retain control over the content we create?

    In these days you just have to hope that your product is successful, but not so successful that some big business entity decides to shut you down based on some bogus patent.

    I used to work for a company that has a patent on the visual representation of latency between to remote connections. Just think of all of the software that is out there that are "violating" these one patent.

    Ugg. Just gets me boiling thinking about it. Most great software started out from small unknown groups or even individuals. 1-2-3 spreadsheat, Mosaic web browser, etc. All big companies have to do today is sit back and wait for someone to create something novel and pounce on them once their idea is proven successful.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @09:03PM (#10838310)
    The by-product of having my job outsourced to India was starting my own "single employee" company.

    I'm here at www.dbapsoftware.com [dbapsoftware.com].. be gentle
  • Yes. (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @09:03PM (#10838314)
    Yes. I'm a lone coder and I make enough to support myself. I did it by becoming part of an open source community and (presumably) becoming respected enough that people are now willing to hire me to do work based on the assumed merit of my prior work. I don't sell any software, I just sell my time.

    I think the "guy selling boxes of software from his basement" model might be a bit harder. You need marketing. Open source gives you marketing in a grassroots kind of way, as long as you're reasonably competent and contribute regularly. Somebody selling software needs a different marketing tact, either by spending a lot of money on advertising or by choosing a field so narrow that you're the only guy on the block (and even then you need to be reasonably competent).
  • by Bombcar (16057) <racbmob.bombcar@com> on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @09:14PM (#10838393) Homepage Journal
    With lasers on its head!

    No, really. If you incorporate (for $800 or so), then the worst that can happen is that your little company is made non-existent.

    At least I don't think they'll pierce the corporate veil over a small company. It's simply not worth their time.
  • Consulting sucks (Score:3, Interesting)

    by putaro (235078) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @09:18PM (#10838430) Journal
    Blech - the great thing about selling a software package, say targeted for home users/SOHO, is that your income is not limited by the number of hours you put in. You also don't have to go hang out at customer sites, spend you time on the phone trying to close contracts, find yourself changing features so that you can land that "big contract" (which then never shows up).

    If you like doing those things, consulting is fine, but it's a really different lifestyle and business than selling a product.
  • Re:I am not a lawyer (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anthracene (126183) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @09:20PM (#10838449) Homepage
    Patent enforcement is the job of the patent holder. You do not need to do "due diligence" unless you are basing your design on someone else's patented product. Or you are attempting to publish your own patent.

    That makes sense, doesn't it? Looking up and citing other work in the field is certainly the way that academic publishing works. Unfortunately the unintended consequences of patent law make it such that it doesn't work out that way.

    When I was (forced by my boss to be) applying for a software patent, my boss told me to look around for other things that might be similar to what we'd done. And as soon as the patent lawyers heard that he told me that, they went through the roof, and immediately told me to stop. Here's why:

    Patent law says that you're legally required to reference any potentially overlapping work that you know about in your application. If someone can show that there was something that you knew about and didn't cite in your application, it's grounds for revoking the patent. It's very hard to write laws that talk about what someone ought to know or be aware of, though, so you only have to include things that you are actually aware of. But the more citations you include in your application, the greater the chance that the examiner will reject the application because of one of those related patents you cited. (You can see where this is going...) So, from a legal standpoint, the best situation is one where you honestly have no knowledge of any other work in the field, so you can submit an application with no citations. So you never do any kind of "due diligence" searching when you submit a patent, because all it can do is decrease the chances that it will get granted.

    So you really probably shouldn't ever read patents (see my other post in this article about why it's a bad idea for programmers to look for infringing patents). Which is kind of strange and sad considering that one of the main points of the patent office was supposed to be to provide a legally protected way to publicize information about technology to encourage further growth and development.

    IANAL, either. Just a disappointed observer, discouraged at how terribly out of control our patent office and patent law has become.
  • Write Games (Score:3, Interesting)

    by hords (619030) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @09:23PM (#10838473)
    I've been in the same boat. I've had some ideas on software I wanted to write, but have worried about patents. Software should only be protected via copyright in my opinion. Software patents should be banished. They are helping the monopolies more than the little guys.

    This has led me to thinking of developing games. I've never once seen a video game patent case. Are games immune from patents? They are software, and really it seems like pretty much the same thing to me. For example, Tetris was really unique for its time, but now there are hundreds of clones. What really is different between an inventive form of gameplay vs. some of the foolish software patents that are out there now? Really, I want to know why this is so different! Please any comments welcome. :)
  • by TheGratefulNet (143330) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @09:28PM (#10838517)
    really, I was told this by lawyers at a very very very large networking company I once worked for. DO NOT INVESTIGATE if you are using someone else's IP. if you investigate, then you are (ironically) setting yourself up. if, otoh, you blindly develop and then, later on, it comes to your attention that you did something 'wrong', its easier to get out of that than the other way around.

    what's the phrase, 'its better to ask forgiveness for an act than to ask permission, beforehand'.

    IANAL, but this is almost exactly what the big corp lawyers told us, when we gathered at a group meeting and were asking about how to go about developing code that doesn't infringe.

    no, temper this with the fact that they have a team of lawyers which is bigger than your whole company. so I'm not sure their advice still sticks. ymmv..
  • by HangingChad (677530) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @09:30PM (#10838529) Homepage
    Why would any company spend hundreds of thousands to sue you? Even if they won what would they get? A ticket to stand in line for the bankruptcy hearing with the other unsecured creditors? There's no margin in suing you...nothing personal.

    A more likely scenario is you build something that's moderately successful and shiit-for-brains-we-don't-produce-anything-but-lit igation company comes after you, and probably a bunch of bigger fish, for royalties. More likely they'll go after the big fish first, then you smaller players later.

    The way to beat these kinds of cases is 30 or 40 of you team up to mount a collective defense. FIghting one little company is easy, fighting the Borg is whole different deal. If it's an abusive patent with prior art worth fighting you stand a good chance.

  • by flacco (324089) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @09:32PM (#10838544)
    Yep. I'm proof. I'm in the process of developing a company myself. As a web developer/designer/database developer/sys admin, I've got a nice enough set of skils to be able to cover all the bases for a web driven business.

    that pretty much describes me - in fact i'm going to give this model a try myself.

    i have to say though - get back to us after your company has survived a year or two after you've burned through your seed capital.

  • by xelph (542741) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @09:37PM (#10838581)
    ... you make a ton of money with your software. So go ahead and write it. Patent defensively, for your own protection and if you can afford it. But nobody in their right business mind is going to sue you unless you have created an untapped $100-million market with your new software. People in business are very greedy, but they are usually not mean just for the sake of being mean (e.g. shutting you down for absolutely no business reason). Why would they waste their energy that way instead of generating wealth? Only the kind of small guy who thinks he invented everything would try to sue you but could he afford it? And if you are infringing on existing patents, when you are making a ton of money, just license those patents and you're fine. Or sell your company. Whatever works best for you. It's like taxes: do not complain if you are paying a lot of taxes; it just means you are making a lot of money.
  • Check Out X-Plane (Score:3, Interesting)

    by RobL3 (126711) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @09:37PM (#10838584)
    One of the best flight sims in the world is basicly the work of one guy (OK, he's gotten some help recently). Of course he did accidently upload all of his code to an ftp server by accident one night when he was drunk. And he's a bit, um, unique (comes with the territory I guess). But still, he's made enough money to drive a sweet car and own one of the best private aircraft available today (and own a Segway). So, yeah, it's still possible to live the lone coder dream...
  • Re:I am not a lawyer (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jaoswald (63789) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @09:54PM (#10838687) Homepage
    Due diligence is only worthwhile if you want to make a patent of your own. Using it as a guide to "what not to do" is a total waste of time.

    Look, all the patent does is allow someone to sue you if they believe they can prove in court your work infringes the patent. This requires several steps to have a real effect on you.

    1) They have to notice you
    2) They have to care somewhat about what you are doing and analyze it in some detail to determine it is in their patent library
    3a) You have to be perceived as a threat to be shut down
    3b) alternatively, you could have deep pockets to be emptied.
    4) They have to contact you/make the first move
    5) They have to decide to sue you
    6) They have to be successful enough in court to
    7a) bankrupt you
    7b) make you empty your deep pockets
    7c) make you stop and do something else.

    At many points along the way, the process can break down in your favor.

    - A lone coder can easily stay under the radar while making a comfortable living for one person.
    - Unless they hear about your product, and are able to gather enough information, they won't know it infringes their patents.
    - If you are successful enough to have deep enough pockets that a patent-holder notices (and patent holders have to be big enough to spend many thousands of dollars to file a defensible patent, not to mention R&D for real innovation), or to be perceived as a threat, you've made enough money to hire a good lawyer. Or, enough money to give up without a fight and retire on your savings.
    - When they contact you, you can counteroffer. Lawsuits are risky. Maybe you can create a win-win situation which they would prefer to a possible lose-win situation favoring you. You probably have some code they would like, or skills they would find useful. Offer to come work for them, or license the code to them, or some other kind of collaboration.
    - If they decide to crush you instead of accepting the offer, you can just walk away. Agree to cease & desist, and move on. If you don't have enough money to walk away, they what the hell are they suing you for?

    Patent holders are either

    1) huge companies that don't care about the little ants scurrying around beneath them unless the ant looks like its going to grow into something big. Then, they would rather buy it than crush it.
    Mostly, they get patents to cross-license as protection or to protect their market niche from the other huge companies or *aggressive* startups.

    2) small companies looking for a big company to sue for violating a patent. They are an ant themselves, looking to take down one of the elephants. Other ants don't have enough money to make enticing targets.

    Neither of these cases really cares about crushing some lone coder just for the savage thrill.

    Plus, (IANAL) the damages they can get are related to the profits they would have had but for the infringement. If you are some small potatoes guy, the revenue you suck away would be tiny, unless you are obviously going against some cash cow like Microsoft Office or iTunes Music Store or a commercial data base. Creating a commercial product dedicated directly to putting MS out of business is obviously asking for trouble. But is also beyond the lone coder.

    Don't waste psychic energy worrying about the remote risk that a patent lawsuit will crush you. You'll have plenty of other reasons to fail, anyway. Life is too short to worry about this kind of thing before the C&D warning shot comes over the bow.
  • by crazyphilman (609923) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @09:59PM (#10838711) Journal
    Not to be the wet blanket of this party, but...

    A) Large companies, who hate small developers with an awe-inspiring passion, have patented everything under the sun, so even if your project is successful, you're going to get the shaft sooner or later;

    B) If your project IS successful, someone's going to come along and yank it right out from under you. Maybe you'll be sued for patent infringement and sign your stuff over in the settlement, or maybe Microsoft will integrate a competing product with Windows, making you irrelevant, or maybe a college kid just as smart as you will come out with competing freeware -- you'll get hosed one way or the other;

    C) Anyone who IS interested in your product is going to download it off a pirate site anyway. Think I'm kidding? I can't tell you how many times I've heard some doofus consultant laugh "But I never pay for software! Windows is free, man." I tell them that I religiously pay for everything, that it's a matter of professional courtesy -- and they almost cough up their livers laughing at me. THIS IS THE MARKET YOU'RE IN. You can't make money in it.

    Given these basic facts, what should a programmer do? Here's MY position; I see two possibilities, which you can blend a bit if you like:

    Possibility Number 1: You write open-source software, you GPL all your stuff, and you sign over the copyrights to the FSF, who have many, many lawyers. You might not make any money doing this, but you get to use your software without restrictions, forever. Also (tasty) you get to seriously annoy the suits who'd like to make money off your stuff. It's no longer possible for someone to take it from you.

    Possibility Number 2: the hacker model: you keep all your cool stuff to yourself, and you trade it with your close friends for their cool stuff. You guys are now the only people with this cool stuff. It's like the force; you are different and have secret abilities that the herd isn't aware of. It's fun and interesting. You meet other groups of people with their own cool stuff and trade; thus you become the Ham Radio operators of the programming world.

    The lone developer isn't going anywhere. He's just going back to the garage and hacker groups he came from.

    Perhaps -- just perhaps -- this is a Good Thing.

  • by Saeger (456549) <farrellj@@@gmail...com> on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:05PM (#10838745) Homepage
    From the perspective of anyone who depends on writing software to make a living, it is an especially obnoxious proprietary license.

    Funny - I make my living by writing, integrating and providing valueadd support for BSD & GPL'd solutions (mostly web-based).

    Most software is a commodity now so it's just the reality of the situation that providing services around opensource is more efficient than the ol' model of selling a piece of shrinked-wrapped artificial scarcity, or a license for same.

    --

  • by lakeland (218447) <lakeland@acm.org> on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:08PM (#10838762) Homepage
    There is some truth in what you're saying, but I think the idea of selling cheap software is going the way of the dodo. Essentially, the free software momement appears to result in a clone of any software that's been around for a long time and has a big userbase. Of course, software got cloned before the free software movement too, but there the clones cost a similar amount to the first product and so didn't slowly suck up the profit margins, essentially they competed fairly.

    There are reasons for this, but you could think them up as easily as me. More relevant are the implications. In this case, since the grandparent was able to swap to a GPLed version tells me you've got something close to a commodity. And this means you're going to have to keep innovating, staying ahead of the GPLed version, or else users will gradully shift to the cheaper, more flexible alternative.

    If you want to continue selling shrinkwrapped software as a one-man team, then I suggest you look at where the free software movement has traditionally done badly -- areas where the software cannot be totally free (due to integration with non-free data), very expensive products for a small market, etc.

    But I think a more viable long-term option is to start adding software modifications/consulting and the like to your portfolio.

    Of course, there is no hurry for any of this, I just expect every year will be a little harder than the one before.
  • Re:Bittorrent (Score:3, Interesting)

    by NotAnotherReboot (262125) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:11PM (#10838774)
    [i]The guy works for blizzard now... He's the one responsible for blizzards new way to distribute games throught bittorrent.[/i]

    Uh, no. Blizzard [i]does[/i] use BitTorrent for releasing patches for the World of Warcraft beta among other things, but he most definitely does not work for them.

    He works for Valve Software...he's probably involved with Steam these days.
  • by turnstyle (588788) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:12PM (#10838787) Homepage
    "Maybe you could refute his claims instead of just being pissed about the attitude."

    I'm not pissed about the attitude, I just think it's counterproductive.

    It's certainly true that the core Andromeda code isn't directly modifiable -- thought it is modifiable via separate prefs & skin files. There are a number of reasons for that, but I don't want to clutter up the thread going into Andromeda details.

    However, you should take care to note that this poster seems to be implying that, had Andromeda been GPL, that then he would have paid. Do you really believe that?

    No, he isn't going to pay if the code is not GPL, and he isn't going to pay if it is. He just wants stuff for nothing.

    SO, in the context of a thread about trying to make a living as a self-employed coder, he is irrelevant (apart from observing his somewhat typical hostile attitude).

  • I'm still here! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by chochos (700687) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:22PM (#10838844) Homepage Journal

    I have a software company with two other guys. Each one of us is in a different project. I'm handling a project all by myself, writing custom software for a client, and I get to do some small projects from time to time too.

    We use open source where we can and contribute back where we can. I'm starting an open source project, writing (yet another) CMS, this one with technologies I'm familiar and feel comfortable with. We plan to use this on some projects with a small web design company, so they can sell a dynamic web site and later we can get to support it (directly or through them, it's all good).

    I like to think that the future of software development will be something like mechanics are now (at least here in Mexico). You can take your new or fancy car to the dealer for small repairs and maintenance, but almost everybody takes their car to some small shop run by a couple of guys who know their stuff. They get their clients mostly by word-of-mouth recommendations. Some mechanics try to rip you off, you don't go back, but if you like their work, you'll recommending them to people you know.

    So I think there will always be big software companies, making big projects and writing huge complex applications, like SAP and such. Big corporations can make business with this big developers. But many companies will go to the smaller development companies that use open source and run a small shop, to cut costs without sacrificing quality and having more direct contact with the people who are going to write their software.

    So maybe the lone coders will not make big big bucks like before, but we can still make a living and enjoy our work.

  • by swimmar132 (302744) <joe AT pinkpucker DOT net> on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:24PM (#10838854) Homepage
    The guy works for Valve now, not Blizzard.
  • by AvitarX (172628) <me@@@brandywinehundred...org> on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:27PM (#10838878) Journal
    He is wrong though.

    step one Incorporate.

    step two pay yourself a salary

    step three you are safe.

    Incorporating is to protect you from bullshit, it costs less then 100 dollors.

    MS set the president that companies are not guilty for the infringemeant of their users.

    There are additional taxes though, the corporations income and your income.
  • Re:I am not a lawyer (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Audacious (611811) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:39PM (#10838943) Homepage
    IANAL2!

    Actually, as per previous talks about patents, a lot of today's patents are based upon previous patents with slight changes here and there. Therefore, always base your product upon expired patented items. Really though, patent infringement on many of today's things should be easily avoided. After all, more than six million patents have been given out since the founding of the US. How many of those do you think are still valid? (Even at Microsoft's threatened 3000 patents this year - that is still a far cry from even one million; let alone six!) They only last twenty years so anything patented before 1984 is up for grabs - even the original Macintosh patents, Apple computer patents, Lisa patents, and IBM PC XT patents. Even Intel's original patents for the 8086 should now be in the public domain. What's going to be interesting soon is cell phones and CD players since they were originally introduced in the 80s. Software patents began in the 1980s also so we should soon see some interesting patents falling into the public domain. Like XOR'd cursors, the way overlapping windows work, and others.

    Also! Don't forget to write your congressman and the Supreme Court (if you can find the email address) about the "chilling effect" it has had on you wanting to produce new works. This is the kind of data the supreme court needs in order to decide whether or not the laws ARE affecting how people do things in America.
  • by C10H14N2 (640033) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:43PM (#10838973)
    A VERY small company I worked for had a product they sold for about $500. Companies would routinely buy it and then ask for several months worth of customization. On average, that little $500 item would generally net about $35-50k. So, you're right, they could just give the thing away and it wouldn't make an ounce of difference, except that they might have more customers.

    I hear they're having financial trouble these days. Wouldn't it be ironic if that worked.
  • by chicken_moo (822458) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:47PM (#10839013)
    Easy way around corporation income - declare your company to break even and pay yourself your full profits! No corporate taxation, only personal income taxes.
  • EUROPE!!! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Fuzzums (250400) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:48PM (#10839022) Homepage
    Come to Europe! Things aren't that bad overhere. Yet...

    The new IP-laws will lake just a little longer to pass, now that 10 new countries joined the EU. They need to negotiate and vote over it again.
  • Re:I am not a lawyer (Score:4, Interesting)

    by cshark (673578) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @11:03PM (#10839128)
    There is of course another way to get around just about any patent that no one ever seems to talk about. Set up shop in Sealand [sealandgov.com]. For those not in the know Sealand is an abandonned British military platform about the size of a football field in the middle of the ocean. And it just so happens that it is located in international waters. Established in 1967 by some British guy with a boat, it provides the ideal setting for those not interested in complying with IP laws. This is because they don't have any. None, natha, zero. They don't honor anyone else's either. Which is handy. If I am not mistaken, Havenco [havenco.com] is located there as well.
  • by ExileOnHoth (53325) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @11:25PM (#10839247)
    Just a few days ago Slashdot posted a link to the saga of mp3 player Audion, by a small 2-man development shop [panic.com]. In the end, the program died, but the developers' story is really very inspiring. [panic.com]

    Thrill to their tale of almost being bought out by AOL in 1999 [panic.com]. Weep at their account of being told offf by Steve jobs at Macworld [panic.com], as he developed a new program (itunes) that would eventually devour our heroes.

    And yet, in the end, the developers' attitude and story inspired the heck out of me. Yes, one guy, working alone, with the right idea, at the right time, can make it big.

    Don't blame big government for your fears. Just come up with something brilliant and take the plunge. And see what happens.
  • Re:I am not a lawyer (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dourk (60585) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @11:30PM (#10839276) Homepage
    Unrelated to software, but a similar situation from my industry:

    Honda has a patent regarding the routing of the front brake line on their motocross bikes. Yamaha is forced to use an alternate (longer) routing to keep from infringing the patent, which ends up decreasing sensitivity on the front brake.

    Suzuki ignores the patent. Honda doesn't care. They aren't nearly as concerned about losing sales to Suz as they are to Yamaha.

    And I have a bunch of short brake line kits for those yams, if anyone wants better brake feel.
  • by Diabolus777 (663144) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @11:30PM (#10839277)
    Here's the primary goal of open source IMO.

    Give a set of tools to engineers. With all that code available, you can skip to the core of what you attempt to build, if what you need is available of course. You can even ask for help (if your goal is non-profit). Linus was a lone coder, and what he did was a big get-togheter with a lot of other lone coders.

    It's just a paradigm shift.
  • by dbIII (701233) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @11:46PM (#10839373)
    He just moved to another country.
    RSA developed overseas mainly due to silly US encryption laws - their customers traded with people overseas so there was no way they could legally give their customers a decent product with a US produced product. Other places may have to do the same due to silly US patents. The lone programmer probably can't keep up with the patent mess.

    Lone programmers still exist in specialised areas, the company I work for buys some geophysics software from a one man company.

  • Re:Cooking Patents (Score:4, Interesting)

    by johnbeat (685167) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @11:50PM (#10839396) Homepage
    It's even worse: recipes cannot be copyrighted! Instructions are not able to copyrighted, and that includes recipes. If there's extra text around it that is not really the recipe, that descriptive text might be able to be copyrighted. But the instructions to make food a specific way? That cannot be copyrighted.

    The same is true of games. You can copyright a certain presentation of, say, Monopoly. But you can't copyright the rules that describe how to play the game Monopoly. (Trademark, of course, may forbid you from using the name 'Monopoly' if you choose to sell your version of the rules. But neither trademark nor copyright can stop you from selling your version of the Monopoly rules under a different name.)

    You can read this at the copyright office web site.

    So, no, I never did understand how computer code could be copyrighted.

    In general, things cannot be copyrighted unless copyright-ability has been specifically extended to that kind of thing. The natural state of things is assumed not to be able to be copyrighted. So, you can't copyright a cheesecake, or a chair, or a scarf, unless Congress specifically says that you can.

    I rant further about this at http://www.hoboes.com/Mimsy/?ART=9 [hoboes.com].

    Jerry
  • Lone coder (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jkirby (97838) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @11:57PM (#10839446)
    If you ar a lone coder and you are not worth at least 100 million dollars, no one will sue you. The legal costs of a patent suit would cost more than they could get from you. I am reminded of the old saying: "You can not get blood from a turnip"
  • by nullset (39850) on Wednesday November 17, 2004 @12:10AM (#10839508)
    If you look for patents you may be violating then ignore it, you'll be charged with willfull infringement and forced to pay 2-3x what it would be otherwise.

    So my 'not a lawyer' advise is don't look for patents until someone comes knocking on your door.

    --buddy
  • by cshark (673578) on Wednesday November 17, 2004 @12:12AM (#10839524)
    Wouldn't you if you could?
    American IP laws have been getting gradually worse for the better part of a decade.

    But seriously,
    With a couple of exceptions I can think of. Namely the e-commerce shopping cart patent, there hasn't been much of a threat to smaller development houses. I'm not saying it's not there, but I don't know if it's as bad as people think it is.

    Small software houses pose problems for IP lawyers. First, they don't have any money. They barely make any money. They might make enough for the initial developer to get by, but when you're talking about the kind of money these companies are looking for, that's nothing. They'll spit at it.

    Secondly,
    Smaller firms are a lot more likely to find pro bono defense. There are a couple of non profit organizations like the EFF that are set up to do just that. Then there's the problem of groups of smaller companies banding together to cover legal costs. Any way you cut it, the smaller the firm you go after, the more likely you are to end up in court. Might sound good if you have genuine innovation at risk. But if you hold several hundred questionable patents on business processes, it's bad news.

    If I were a patent hording firm, I would be going after the Sonys and IBMs of the world. That's a sure bet.
  • by letxa2000 (215841) on Wednesday November 17, 2004 @12:20AM (#10839553)
    It really depends on what you sell and what your market is. I'm a lone-coder that has a number of software products for sale as well as services and my own consulting services.

    My thoughts:

    1. Begware or "donations" has to be a lost cause. I have a hard time believing they'd generate more revenue than generous shareware (generous shareware=virtually fully functional programs, hardly limited).

    2. "Generous shareware" is essentially "extra income" for me. There's no way I could live off of it. In addition to extra income, my shareware products are "calling cards" and publicity for my software development capabilities.

    3. The additional trick is constantly create new products. Over time more and more people will buy them and once you've got a number of them out there the constant combined income flow is going to start adding up to something worthwhile.

    4. My main income comes from consulting services. Some of those are directly related to my products but most are only generally related. Those that hire me often find me having stumbled on my software and realizing that to develop the software I developed that I definitely must have the software development skills they need for a similar project.

    5. I have the benefit of being in a niche market. I can't imagine trying to do this as a generic Windows programmer writing VB apps or PHP scripts. Anyone and their dog can do that and many of those are unemployed and willing to work for peanuts at this point. Luckily I'm in a niche embedded market (embedded != Windows or Linux running on a small machine but rather writing the firmware for a microcontroller, etc.) which commands higher consulting rates.

    Unfortunately a lot of projects can't be done as one-man projects. Complicated projects eventually demand a high level of support and eventually you'll spend all your time supporting your customers and no time developing which is a quick recipe for downward-spiraling income and future innovation.

  • Re:I am not a lawyer (Score:4, Interesting)

    by solprovider (628033) on Wednesday November 17, 2004 @12:45AM (#10839647) Homepage
    I fit the definition of the "Lone Coder". While I have a long history of working on teams to write software, several companies have rejected funding my "Really Good Ideas(TM)". I built the programs anyway. I believe (and hope and pray) I have the business sense to bring the products to market without getting sued to oblivion first. Then I hope to free (as in "release the source code under the GPL") the programs before lawsuits force my company into bankruptcy. I want to:
    - make the world a better place.
    - get rich.
    - continue having fun with computers.
    I hope the world (the US court system and the idiots with a bankroll for lawyers) let me.

    Taking your points:
    1. They notice me.
    My first products are built on software from IBM. I hope the partnership with IBM develops so they:
    - Won't sue me. (I am helping to sell their products too.)
    - May assist in my defense against lawsuits. This is a long shot, but I can dream, right?

    2. Realize I am violating a patent.
    Given the state of patents, I assume every new program violates many of them, including anything I write. So I assume I will get sued. Today, there is no chance that a "Lone Coder" could market anything without getting sued.

    3a. Need to be a threat.
    One of my programs obsoletes most of what MS has said Longhorn will do. That should count as a threat.

    3b. Deep pockets.
    We are in negotiations to license one of my programs for several million dollars. Does that count as "deep pockets"?

    4 & 5. They make a move and sue me.
    Are you kidding? There are too many "companies" producing nothing but lawsuits for me to even hope I have a chance to not be sued.

    6. The courts.
    Of course the courts will allow them to sue me. What else are the courts for?

    7a & b. Bankruptcy, Broke
    I hope to have enough money to survive the smaller players. I hope to make partners to survive the big players (MS). Declaring bankruptcy is the last line of the business plan. We expect it.

    7c. Do something else.
    Always have a Plan B. Mine involves an estate somewhere warm with swimming pools. That will not advance the state of computers, but at least I have a plan.

    == Points in my favor? ==
    - Stay under the radar?
    I want to improve the world. I don't worry about developing ideas unless they have the potential to produce millions of dolllars. That is not a good plan for staying under the radar.

    - Lawyers?
    I have a good IP law firm. While I expect them to defend me, and keep the cases in court as long as possible without any impediments to my business, they are expensive, and eventually the cost of the lawyers will eat all the profits. At that point, I'll quit.

    - Counter-offers
    They are only good when the other "company" has something to lose. If they are suing for the hope of a big win, it will be difficult to buy them off. Cross-licensing is useless when the other company only produces lawsuits, since lawyers will not pass laws allowing patents restricting lawsuits, and none of my patents would be relevant.

    - Big companies
    If MS sues me, I am releasing the software as open source. That is the step in the business plan just before going bankrupt.

    - Small companies
    I like your comparison to ants, but a few million dollars will seem like much money to an ant. Why should they take on an elephant when they can retire by stepping on another ant?

    Don't assume a "Lone Coder" cannot be a threat to the big guys. Linus managed to create the only violable threat to MSWindows. One of my programs threatens most of the business software sold today. Yes, Linux involved many other people before it became a real threat, and I expect to hire other people before my programs are brought to market. But the ideas were first developed by a Lone Coder.

    I agree with your last point. Our first goal is to make money. Then we need to polish our other programs and bring them to market. Then we'll wait until lawsuits bankrupt us. Hopefully I will still have Plan B.
  • You are not alone (Score:3, Interesting)

    by museumpeace (735109) on Wednesday November 17, 2004 @01:18AM (#10839798) Journal
    ...and you have some venerable company in Dan Bricklin [bricklin.com].
    The bad news is ,neither of you are likely to get rock-star rich from your spiffy new idea. As for the idea-sewer that the USPTO has become: take advantage of it. The barriers to filing were lowered and you can stake your claim easily enough...just try to make your money before you get sued. The examiners have been forced to leave the real work up to the courts but by the time the process reaches that stage, you should have sold your company and gone on to the next thing. Dan Bricklin would say to just forget about patents alltogether [satn.org]
  • Re:I am not a lawyer (Score:3, Interesting)

    by cpt kangarooski (3773) on Wednesday November 17, 2004 @01:20AM (#10839810) Homepage
    Uh huh. The problem is that you can't go there personally because they don't let people over there as a rule. And what's key when you're getting sued is where you are, not where you'd like to be.

    Not to mention that no one takes Sealand seriously and would bother respecting claims of sovereignty anyway.
  • by cliffski (65094) on Wednesday November 17, 2004 @03:41AM (#10840267) Homepage
    he isn't the only one. Check my sig, I write PC games on my own. granted its not full time, but this year it paid for a brand new car and a shiny Sony Laptop. Some of my games are on sale in WalMart.
    Big companies love to regurgitate this nonsense that you cant make it on your own. Its there way of dissuading there best guys from quitting to start up their own companies.
    As for the lawyer stuff. I've got by without once talking to a lawyer. I even do my own accounts now. Dealing with accountants and lawyers is a fast way to turn a profitable startup into a loss making one.
  • by KontinMonet (737319) on Wednesday November 17, 2004 @04:52AM (#10840441) Homepage Journal
    I have the experience of specifically avoiding coding a certain way precisely because we might have infringed on an IBM patent. This involved arithmetic coding to be able to squeeze 'multi-dimensional' index IDs (possibly very sparsely populated) into 32 bits on a database. The company, although worth a few hundred million US$, did not have sufficient resources (nor the appetite) to check all the possible relevant patents worldwide. So we ended up limiting the range of index IDs (which was not ideal).

    It might have been possible to code it without infringement, it might never have been noticed by IBM (or whoever might own any relvant patent) but the legal department was never going to take the risk.

    So we end up with a sub-optimal design. Just having the possibility of future (and expensive) lawsuits means that innovation is being stifled anyway. Software patents (and business processes) are plain dumb. And for small and medium companies, they could be a disaster waiting to happen.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 17, 2004 @06:24AM (#10840668)
    To make things even sillier - during product development at RSA Australia, absolutely no technical details could be discussed with the parent company in the US, to protect SSL-(eay)-C / BSAFE, etc., from being 'contaminated' by US ITAR restrictions at the time.

    Interestingly, when the RSA patent expired, the company released a marketing catchphrase stating: 'it's just an algorithm'. Nevermind that they had threatened to crucify anyone for even *thinking* about prime numbers up to that point:)

    I know many companies encourage developers NOT to check for patent infringements, so that in the worst case there can be no charges of willful infringement. The patent farce actively discourages lone developers from releasing source code, even when they would like to do so. It's worth the extra cost and effort to establish a company structure that provides certain protections that a sole trader status does not.

    IMHO the best way to go is to develop niche products for a select industry, amongst a relatively narrow audience of specialists. The example of geophysics software in the parent post is a good one.
  • by kinema (630983) on Wednesday November 17, 2004 @07:43AM (#10840915)
    where are we going to get the vast sums of money needed to make free software competitive with commercial closed source software?
    Who said that we need "vast sums of money"? The original article was on the topic of the "lone coder" not massive multinational conglomerates.

    Small organizations consisting of a no more then a handful of dedicated coders working on projects that they are deeply interested in are bound to be more efficient then the Suns, IBMs and Microsoft's of the the world.

    Such small consultancy firms have little to no advertising, marketing and sales overhead. These groups thrive on word of mouth and a more academia like environment.

  • Re:I am not a lawyer (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 17, 2004 @08:03AM (#10841033)

    I want to improve the world. I don't worry about developing ideas unless they have the potential to produce millions of dolllars. That is not a good plan for staying under the radar.

    Mark me for trolling, flaming, whatever you want... i can't let this go.

    What the hell is this "I want to improve the world" garbage? Come on... why do you feel the need to say that? You want to be rich, plain and simple. If you really wanted to help the world, you'd say it the other way around:

    "I want to help the world. If I can come up with an idea that makes millions, then all the better, but it's the first part that's important."

    99 times out of a 100 (hell, 99.99 times) the idea that helps the world doesn't make you rich, if it makes you any money at all.

    I have no problem with you trying to make millions but don't insult those people that actually do make the world a better place and live in squalor because of it by saying you're in the same league as they are.

    You want to be rich, but you find those that may sue you because they want the same thing, reprehensible. That's pathetic. You want to play in the game and get rich? Then recognize that you are probably, deep down inside, much more like "them" than

    • the groups that give shelter to battered women
    • people that make $8/hour working in animal shelters
    • people that spend most of their non-work time volunteering at old age homes, youth centres, local schools, coach little league
    • groups who give food and blankets to the homeless
    • ...

    Once again, I have no problem with you making yourself rich. Just don't make us try to believe that it has anything to do with your desire to "better the world".

  • by Hognoxious (631665) on Wednesday November 17, 2004 @08:25AM (#10841178) Homepage Journal
    Stock represents ownership of a company. Good companies have tangiable assets
    Good companies have intangible assets too. That's why they're worth more than the sum of their tangible assets, because if they didn't they'd be bad companies, and they would be targeted by asset-strippers.
  • by Mr Coffee Cup (182394) on Wednesday November 17, 2004 @08:49AM (#10841411) Journal
    Better than incorporate, form an LLC. It's a lot cheaper at tax time.

    I am a lone coder, 5 years and 160K lines of C frontend and 110 tables of sql into the project. Probably 400k lines total, if you count all the stuff that's been rewritten, redesigned, and obsoleted.

    It's closed source, because I have to make a living, and because I've spent thousands of hours re-inventing the wheel so that it's entirely my wheel. The systems are for a specialized market (translation, the competition is big companies with lots of overhead)

    Personally, I'm more worried with getting customers to pay on time than infringement. As far as actual infringement goes, I regularly mail myself a copy of the source tree, and the CVS tree, at least once every other month. Been doing that for years. It's cheap.. and effective enough to keep me losing sleep.

    A lot of the features in the software are customer requests. These are easily documented, witnessable (if that's even a word) by a living breathing customer, and tied by date into various cd backups of the CVS tree that I mail myself.

    Simply put, I don't have the resources and certainly not the time to dig about and see who might have designed a similar wheel. I don't care. All I care about is that customers get a product that is reliable as their lights so that my tech support cell doesn't ring and I can get some sleep.

    Ohh, and yeah, pay me on time you lazy bums.. you know who you are.
  • by cactusbillybob (829089) on Wednesday November 17, 2004 @09:10AM (#10841567) Journal
    A one person coding company could exist as a sole proprietorship, a nonprofit corporation, a corporation, or a one person LLC.

    They could build on open source applications, within their licensing rules.

    The one person coding firm could also sell his or her software, and offer limited licensing (one to 5 personal copies per user) to whoever buys/leases the software. I realize it probably wouldn't be a EULA.

    The software could be copyrighted to protect against pirates.

    Trade Secrets are based on state laws. It protects the Coca Cola formula and other "secret" formula.

    So when the one person coding firm wants to protect his/her work, copyright could protect the code, trade secrets could protect the "way" in which the software is produced, maybe even the way the box where the CD Rom is shipped.

    The app would sit on the shoulders of Open Source giants, and thus friendly users could distribute 1-5 copies maybe. Friendly customer based pirating? Anything more than 5 copies would be considered piracy.

    As far as patent infringements, my guess (only a guess) is that these could be avoided as long as a person is building from or on an open source code. Assuming open source code does not use anything remotely like MS or Amazon patents.

    Plus two people might disagree all the time. One person can perfect a cool vision!
  • Re:Cry us a river. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Muddles (598813) on Wednesday November 17, 2004 @10:37AM (#10842248)

    Im the lead developer for a small company, we write web applications. What we do isn't inovative in a technical sense, but the ideas are. We rely on the fact that we're first to market with a feature, maintain that lead while others play catchup as we implement the next set of new features.

    The problem with the GPL for us, is that it effectively removes that barrier to entry, and allows other commercial interests to do exactly what you're claiming the GPL prevents. If we release our code GPL, they can include all the features we have letting them jump straight into a level playing field without being arsed to invest in R&D and without any effort (on their part anyway, the long days and late nights are all mine). All because we based a small part of the development on GPL or LGPL code (we're a java house, they work out about the same). For this reason we avoid the GPL and stick purely to Apache/BSD libs, or commercial code if there is no alternative.

    The terms of the GPL are commercially friendly, if you are a big company with a recognizable brand (apple, sun, ibm) and a small army of people writing your code. For us and many other small companies that I work with and speak to, the GPL is a complete non-starter. The GPL fails us, because it makes demands that we just cant commercially justify and puts our future viablity as a company at risk. Apache and BSD licences allow us to give back to the community on terms that dont put our livelyhoods at risk.

  • It's even worse. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by John Sokol (109591) on Wednesday November 17, 2004 @12:39PM (#10843743) Homepage Journal
    I several occasions I have written code and posted it opensource, binary, BASIC (way back when) or just used it at an ISP or something, then find someone filed a patent based on seeing my Code!.

    First Byte inc. Filed a Patent on playing PWM Audio on the PC internal Speaker, I assume after disassembling my binary (written in Assembly) that I had posted on Compuserve(the copy a bug I had in that code into there patent). They then started suing everyone who had also dissembled my code and started using it in there products. Finally I become an expert witness for Activision and had to sign an affidavit stating that I had prior art to help get the First Byte patent overturned! And a few companes liscenced the code official from me. http://www.dnull.com/zebraresearch/ (code is posted)

    The same is true for much of the code I have done. Some of the first audio and video(in and out), on Apple II, CoCo , PC , C64, Lisa, Mac.
    Multimedia over BBS's , Multi-tone audio out of 1bit output (1983)(AKA, polyphonic ringtones),
    LCD oscilloscope (1986),
    Streaming audio over IP now called VOIP , portable compressed music player (1987),
    TCP/IP over Spread Spectrum RF and Laser(1988),
    Streaming Video over IP Lan in (1989),
    Streaming video across Sun Microsystem global IP WAN, TCP/IP over Laser (1991),
    Internet Banking web site(for Wells Fargo 1992)
    Livecam (1994),
    Content Distribution Networks , fault tolerant web server, Single threaded web server and web server with compressed log files output(1995) ,
    Error Correction over IP, CCTV DVR, Streaming audio over JAVA(1996),
    Parallel processor Video Compression and HDTV streaming over the Internet (1999).
    Silent computers and water cooled blades(2000),

    There was even a company that threated to sue me after stealing my code outright! They just changed the authorship names. Fortunatly I had left hidden in the code in the server if you gave it the right URL from a browser it reported my name as the author. I never managed to stop them from selling there version of the product though.

    Can't talk about the newer stuff since I have started to file patents So I don't get prevented from using my own stuff.

    My biggest problem is how do I protect myself.
    Seems like whenever I try to publish something, someone else borrows it, (or at least the concept) and puts it out farther and faster then I can and takes the credit for it. I know I just plan suck a PR and getting the word out , but still.

    I at least want to be able to prove original authorship and invention for the ideas and concepts. And it seems anything less then filing patents one each one has been ineffective.
  • by solprovider (628033) on Wednesday November 17, 2004 @12:41PM (#10843772) Homepage
    Yes, I want to improve the world. I need to become rich to do it.

    I have been writing software for large companies for over a decade. My software is fast and easy to use, which reduces headaches and improves the quality of life for the users. I have been focused on business software for a very long time: I am good at it, and most of my ideas focus on business software. I would like to spend time fixing Mozilla and other OSS, but my other projects seem more important because there is nobody else to develop them; Mozilla has other developers and they may eventually implement my ideas, or at least solve my complaints.

    Of my current products:
    #1 is for businesses. It should make me money. No apologies.
    #2 is for businesses, and it will help consumers. It requires major investment to develop, which is why it is planned second. It may make me more money, but it will improve the lives of almost everybody.
    #3 was originally designed for business. It requires major investment to complete. The original core is still aimed at business, but the fully developed version may change how everybody uses computers. The current plan is to release the consumer version for free, while selling some applications built on the platform to businesses.

    A person doing your charitable actions does not "improve the world"; they improve a very small piece of it, usually by helping something return to the "normal" state. Women should not be battered; sheltering them is important for removing evil, but it does not stop all women from being battered. If I could develop software to stop women from ever being battered, I would, but I have no ideas on the subject (yet).

    If you want to help one battered woman, go do it. If I want to help every battered women, I need more resources. With enough money, I can put a shelter in every city and pay the staff. Which of us helps more?

    Getting rich is not evil in itself. Many of the people running the United Way get paid well, but they are doing it because they believe. I want to make enough to be able to give my software away. I expect most new software product companies to be sued into oblivion; the business model cannot compete against lawsuit factories; we will need money just to survive the lawsuits.

    Check back in 10 years and decide if I made a positive adjustment to "the world".
  • by time961 (618278) on Wednesday November 17, 2004 @11:12PM (#10850215)
    Another thing to consider as a Lone Coder is somehow tying your product to an on-line service (or, more to the point, thinking of products for which such a service is essential).

    Customers are more willing to pay for something when it is clear to them that it's costing the supplier something to supply it. Downloading software looks "free" because it only happens once, but if it's clear that an ongoing service is required, that's easier to justify paying for.

    That said, with today's hosting and communication costs, services can be pretty darn cheap to provide: even factoring in the need for reserve capacity to handle unpredictable demands, the gross profit margin can be huge.

    This model fits as well with GPL software as with proprietary, and it scales much better than the "support services" model. To provide support, you have to have actual people doing work, but to expand an automated service, you just need more hardware.

    YMMV: This is not a trivial model to set up: it just can't work for many types of applications. If the cost is too high, or if it's not clear why the service is an essential and valuable component of the offering, customers will resent it. If the service is essential, but unreliable or overloaded, customers won't much like that, either. And so forth. From a technical and cost perspective, however, it's highly practical.

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