Martin Goetz, recipient of the first software patent, logs off at 93

The industry owes him a debt of gratitude

Obituary Martin Goetz, regarded by many as the "father of third-party software," has died at the age of 93.

An inductee into the Mainframe Hall of Fame – an institution devoted to honoring individuals instrumental in IBM's 1960s mainframe success – Goetz was notable for receiving the first software patent, awarded in 1968, for his sorting system program.

Until then, the lines between software and hardware tended to blur, with software usually tweaked for a specific customer's needs and bundled with hardware. Goetz and the company he founded – Applied Data Research (ADR) – played a pivotal role in defining software as a product in its own right. As such, it would fall under intellectual property laws.

Goetz's patent was for a data sorting algorithm that he reckoned could be patented. Sorting has always been vital in computing, but back in the days of magnetic tape getting data written in the most efficient way possible was critical, since doing so could cut the number of read-and-write operations.

Fewer read-write operations meant less spooling and faster operations.

Goetz filed his patent application in 1965, which was granted in 1968 and arguably started the software industry as it is understood today.

Another step toward the creation of a standalone software market was taken in 1969 when ADR sued IBM [PDF] for alleged monopolistic practices regarding ADR's Autoflow application – a tool for producing flowcharts to document code. Regarded by many as the first time a software program was sold as a standalone product, the application struggled against IBM's Flowcharter – which arguably lacked features but was free.

The result of the lawsuit was an unbundling of system software by IBM – with the exception of operating systems – from the company's hardware.

Of the action, Goetz said: "In August 1970, ADR settled its antitrust suit with IBM with an out-of-court settlement of $2 million. The struggle was worth it. We were well on our way to success."

ADR became a large software vendor before eventually being acquired by Ameritech – better known now as AT&T – in 1986. It was then sold on to Computer Associates in 1988.

While some in the software industry today might regard patents as somewhat burdensome, the actions of Goetz were more of liberation – the liberation of software development from an anti-competitive hardware industry. ®

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