Saturday, June 11, 2011

Software engineering in the language of lawyers

Have a look at the paragraph below:

A system comprising: units of a commodity that can be used by respective users in different locations, a user interface, which is part of each of the units of the commodity, configured to provide a medium for two-way local interaction between one of the users and the corresponding unit of the commodity, and further configured to elicit, from a user, information about the user's perception of the commodity, a memory within each of the units of the commodity capable of storing results of the two-way local interaction, the results including elicited information about user perception of the commodity, a communication element associated with each of the units of the commodity capable of carrying results of the two-way local interaction from each of the units of the commodity to a central location, and a component capable of managing the interactions of the users in different locations and collecting the results of the interactions at the central location.

This is the core paragraph of United States Patent 7,222,078, which was applied for by Daniel Abelow of Newton Massachusetts in December, 2003, and was granted by the Patent Office in May, 2007.

This patent is currently gathering a lot of attention.

But what language is the above paragraph written in? It is not the language of software engineers: it is complete gibberish to me; it might as well be written in Urdu for all the meaning I can get out of it. After 30 years of software engineering, I can sit down in front of nearly any description of a piece of software and within a few sentences I can grasp what the author is trying to describe, and compare and contrast it to other similar descriptions that were written by software engineers, for software engineers.

This description is written in the language of lawyers, and I have no idea what they are talking about. What is a "commodity", and what are "units of a commodity"? What is a "two-way local interaction", and what sort of "memory" is it that needs to be "capable of storing results", since I know of no other sort of "memory" that is used in computer software.

Since no software engineers use language like this, there must have been a translation process:

  • Initially, the computer software in question was described by its engineers, in the language of software engineering, stating its design and how it worked.

  • Then, some person or persons must have translated this description into the language of lawyers, presumably because the United States Patent Office only accepts applications written in the language of lawyers.

  • Then, the legal description must have been re-translated back into the language of software engineering, so that experienced software professionals similar to myself could examine the description, understand whether it was meaningful and clear, and determine whether or not it was an invention worthy of a United States Patent.

I suppose that I am faced with two questions, one rather pragmatic, and one more philosophical:

  1. Is it possible to locate either or both of the descriptions of a patent which are written in the language of software engineers, so that I could read, e.g., the description of a patent such as United States Patent 7,222,078 in a language I can understand?

  2. Wouldn't the patent system work better if patents were applied for and granted in their actual language, rather than being translated into the language of lawyers? Since every language translation is fraught with ambiguities and errors, why do we force extra unnecessary translations such as these?

I guess I can take heart in that others are as confused as I am. Strangely, Daniel Abelow's own website, which you might think would actually be written in the language of engineers, for engineers, since it claims that

Abelow's independent investions emerged from conceiving a new type of operating environment for individuals, corporations, and societies, to make self-determined improvements in their quality of life.

instead seems to be full of nothing but the same sort of gibberish.

Oh well.

As I said, if you do know of someplace where this patent (or indeed any software patents) are described in the actual language of software engineers, please do let me know.

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