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Software patents spark conversation about viability and protection

It’s taken 13 years, but an upstate New York company, Logical Images, has finally received a patent for the software that runs its visual diagnostic system. The tool is used by physicians to lower the rate of diagnostic errors. Though the company says the patent was vital to their commercial viability and the protection of their product, not everyone thinks software should be patentable.     

Software is traditionally protected by copyright, but as software becomes increasingly pervasive developers are looking more towards patenting their products. Patents effectively block anyone but the holder from doing anything with the software for 20 years.

Logical Images CEO Art Papier says although it took more than a decade, a patent for their system was worth the time and money.

“There’s ideas that we’ve patented that we felt were very unique and important to our business," Papier said. "And when you think about a small company trying to compete in this global market place you need protection for ideas.”

The VisualDX diagnostic system allows physicians to enter things like patient symptoms, medical history and recent travel. It then provides a list of potential diagnoses, accompanied by images.

It’s a bit like using a search engine, but instead of having to sort through thousands of images with each search, this system is optimized for diagnosis and narrows down the list to the most likely illnesses.

Papier says that’s what makes their product worth protecting, and the patent discourages larger companies from poaching their idea and also reassures their investors.

But Daniel Nazer, and attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says software patents can harm innovation instead of encouraging it.

“The patent office is issuing far too many, really low quality, really vague and over-broad software patents that actually end up becoming land mines for everyone who wants to innovate in that space.

Nazer says while small companies may think a patent will help them, they may find that they’re contributing to a hard-to-navigate system that will do more harm than good.

WXXI/Finger Lakes Reporter for the Innovation Trail