rapid serial visual presentation, software patents

March 25th, 2004  |  Tags:  |  6 Comments

After seeing Trevor Smith’s rad speed reader remix of a novel, I thought it would be cool to see how well the speed-reading concept works more generally. So I read a couple of papers, including this one on rapid serial visual presentation. I then spent about ten minutes writing a python script to “read” a document to a user with controllable variable speed. The end results are incredibly impressive: in general, I either read very quickly and miss some details or read extremely slowly and get distracted before I can finish, but with this technique, I can read over 1000 words per minute, remembering everything. (My reading practice is probably indicative of a severe learning disability.)

I thought it would be nice to share this script with other people who read the same way I do, even though it’s under 100 lines of python and would be trivial to write for an even remotely-experienced programmer. I uploaded it to my web server and started writing this entry. I was then plagued with a terrible thought: What if this technique is patented?

As it turns out, it is. I spent about an hour reading various patents describing speed-reading techniques, incremental refinements to speed-reading techniques, and cute interfaces for incrementally-refined speed-reading techniques. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that any of these patents are so broad as to include any possible computer-aided speed reading “device”. One choice quote from a patent confirmed my suspicion that anyone distributing speed-reading software would get subpoenaed in short order:

While the invention has been described with reference to at least one preferred embodiment, it is to be clearly understood by those skilled in the art that the invention is not limited thereto.

Wow. The oldest patent describing some variant of this technique is 4,845,645; it appears to expire sometime in July, 2006. So, unless I unexpectedly move to Scandinavia, it looks like I won’t be sharing the link to my script anytime soon.

How stupid is it that a piece of software that is almost too trivial to be copyrightable could possibly infringe upon a patent? I always knew that software patents were a bad idea, and that software patents lead to ludicrous, arbitrary restrictions, but I guess one doesn’t know how bad things are until ten minutes worth of one’s own typing is potentially legally actionable. I’m going to have to join the arms race myself, patenting every idea I’ve ever had.

I’m currently listening to Act 1 Scene 1 – Da zu dir der Heiland kam from the album “Wagner – Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Karajan, Dresdener Staatskapelle)” by Herbert von Karajan & Staatskapelle Dresden