Unsung innovators: Marty Goetz, holder of first software patent

Also challenged IBM's software monopoly

In 1965, Marty Goetz filed the first software patent in history -- sparking a 15-year controversy about whether that should even be allowed. In the 1960s, he led a challenge against IBM's monopoly, in particular its bundling of various software programs as part of its operating systems.

That business practice, in which all the major hardware vendors of the day engaged, had the result of locking out software innovators.

"If you really wanted to sum it all up, my story is not about software patents; it's really about software protection," says Goetz, now retired and living in New Jersey.

But it was software patents that set the nascent computer industry abuzz back in 1965. Computerworld ran a story on June 17 of that year with the front-page headline: "First Patent Issued for Software, Full Implications Are Not Yet Known."

While patenting software seems straightforward enough today, 32 years ago, it was a groundbreaking idea. Goetz, already a veteran programmer with stints at Sperry Rand Corp. and IBM, began working for Applied Digital Research (ADR) when it started up in 1959.

While there, he worked on a number of programs, among them a method of helping mainframes sort through data more quickly. His friend, lawyer Mort Jacobs, "convinced me I could get patent protection for my new sorting technology.

"It was a radical idea that slowly seemed to make more and more sense," says Goetz. "I knew what IBM did with bundling software into its hardware, and I wanted to protect my program," he says. "Plus, Mort convinced me -- and this is true -- that software and hardware are interchangeable."

Marty Goetz, holder of first software patent

Marty Goetz, holder of the first software patentThat is, you can put software on a chip, or build chips with circuitry to accomplish what a particular piece of software performs. "Hardware was patentable, so why not software?" Goetz says.

Software, after all, was a set of instructions put together to do a task, that task being an invention, Goetz and Jacobs agreed. So on April 8, 1965, Goetz filed for the patent. He received it three years later -- on April 28, 1968 -- as U.S. Patent No. 3,380,029 for "Sorting System."

He kept going. Goetz then filed a patent for a flowchart product he produced called Autoflow. He says it was a huge step ahead of what IBM was offering its customers for free at the time. Users could actually print their flowcharts out on printers, rather than having to hand-draw boxes, as IBM's software had required. That patent, filed in December 1965, was granted in October 1970.

But controversy was afoot. Trade journals and the general press started writing stories wondering whether the patentability of something as seemingly intangible as software was even possible. Goetz says in his memoirs (download PDF) that prominent journalists at the time, including Patrick McGovern, chairman of Computerworld parent company International Data Group, questioned whether hardware makers would voluntarily unbundle software from their hardware -- leading to unbridled competition and the beginning of a whole new market.

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