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SOFTWARE PATENTS have taken a beating lately from critics who say they put a legal lock on basic ideas--such as mathematical formulas--that should be free. As an example of what's wrong, they say the Patent & Trademark Office should not have awarded a patent to Compton's NewMedia last year for a software technique for searching and retrieving data.

IN REALITY, software should be just as patentable as machinery or chemicals. Someone who discovers a clever new mathematical trick for, say, compressing data more efficiently should be rewarded for it. True, the Patent & Trademark Office has issued some unjustified software patents in recent times. But several of those, including the Compton's patent, have been overturned on appeal. The Patent & Trademark Office has been quietly issuing software patents since about 1970--during which time software-industry revenues have zoomed.EDITED BY PETER COY & JULIE TILSNER

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