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Martin Goetz, Inventor of the First Software Patent, Passes Away at 93

Martin Goetz, who joined the computer industry in its infancy in the mid-1950s as a programmer working on Univac mainframes and who later received the first U.S. patent for software, died on Oct. 10 at his home in Brighton, Mass. He was 93.

His daughter Karen Jacobs said the cause was leukemia.

In 1968, nearly a decade after he and several other partners started the company Applied Data Research, Mr. Goetz received his patent, for data-sorting software for mainframes. It was major news in the industry: An article in Computerworld magazine bore the headline “First Patent Is Issued for Software, Full Implications Are Not Known.”

Until then, software had not been viewed as a patentable product, one that was bundled into hulking mainframes like those made by IBM. Ms. Jacobs said her father had patented his own software so that IBM could not copy it and put it on its machines.

“By 1968, I had been involved in arguing about the patentability of software for about three years,” Mr. Goetz said in an oral history interview in 2002 for the University of Minnesota. “I knew at some point in time the patent office would recognize it.”

What Mr. Goetz called his “sorting system” is believed to have been the first software product to be sold commercially, and his success at securing a patent led him to become a vocal champion of patenting software. The programs that instruct computers on what to do, he said, were often as worthy of patents as the machines themselves.

The issuance of Mr. Goetz’s patent “helped managers, programmers and lawyers at young software firms feel as if they were forming an industry of their own — one in which they were creating products that were potentially profitable and legally defensible as proprietary inventions,” Gerardo Con Díaz, a professor of science and technology studies at the University of California, Davis, wrote in the 2019 book “Software Rights: How Patent Law Transformed Software Development.”

Robin Feldman, a professor at the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco, said by phone, “The world we live in now, with app stores and software invented in someone’s garage, is a credit to Goetz’s vision, his scientific innovation and dogged persistence.”

Revenues of the worldwide software market were about $610 billion in 2022, according to Statista, a data and business intelligence firm.

Mr. Goetz and his company took another step to open the software market in April 1969, when Applied Data Research filed an antitrust lawsuit against IBM, accusing it of illegally setting a single price for its equipment and software, essentially giving away the software free of charge. The lawsuit called for the unbundling of the software.

The suit was part of a barrage of legal actions, taken within four months of one another, by Applied Data Research, two other companies and the U.S. Department of Justice.

That June, IBM agreed to the unbundling.

Applied Data Research nonetheless continued its lawsuit. It was settled in August 1970; the terms included an agreement to supply one of its programs, Autoflow, to IBM.

“He not only got what he wanted,” Ms. Jacobs said, but “A.D.R. started selling more products and opened the doors to the independent software industry.”

In 1976, Mr. Goetz was a government witness in the Justice Department’s case against IBM.

“I had the opportunity to tell the world why IBM’s unbundling was a godsend for the user community,” he wrote in 2002 in a two-part memoir published in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Annals of the History of Computing. “It was a great experience for me and A.D.R.”

Martin Alvin Goetz was born on April 22, 1930, in Brooklyn. His father, Jacob, lost his men’s clothing store during the Great Depression and then sold ties on street corners until his death in 1943. His mother, Rose (Friedman) Goetz, worked at the store and, after her husband’s death, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II.

After his father’s haberdashery went out of business, the family moved six times to successively lower-priced apartments. When Marty was 12, he began delivering meat for a butcher.

He attended the elite Brooklyn Technical High School. His college education — first at Brooklyn College and then at the City College of New York — was broken up by his service in the Army with the Second Armored Division in Texas. He received a bachelor’s degree in business statistics from City College in 1953 and a master’s in business administration there eight years later.

After graduating, he worked as a supervisor at A.C. Nielsen, analyzing radio ratings. He then answered a newspaper ad for a programmer at Remington Rand’s Univac division. Hired, he spent 12 weeks as a trainee, learning how to program the Univac, a pioneering mainframe.

“I loved it,” he wrote in the 2002 memoir, “and used to program in my head as I drove my car.”

He spent four years at what became Sperry Rand (Remington Rand merged with the Sperry Corporation in 1955), working with clients like the pharmaceutical manufacturer Parke-Davis and the New York utility Consolidated Edison. He created his first sorting program for Con Edison’s billing system.

“I just sort of fell into it,” he said in the oral history. “I really had never thought about sorting until there was a need for it within Con Edison.”

He left for a job at IBM’s applied programming group in 1958, but he didn’t stay long: He and his partners started Applied Data Research the next year.

The company went public in 1965 and became a leader in the software industry. Mr. Goetz was named president in 1984 after 10 years as senior vice president and director of the software products division.

“I don’t expect my life to change much,” he told The New York Times after his promotion. “I’ve been running 85 percent of the business. The promotion really just adds to my responsibilities rather than changing them.”

In 1985, the regional telecommunications company Ameritech acquired Applied Data Research for $215 million; a year later, Mr. Goetz moved to a new position as the company’s senior vice president and chief technology officer. He stayed through early 1988, when he became the chief executive of Syllogy, a software company.

He left that position in mid-1989 and became a consultant to software companies and venture capital firms, as well as an investor.

Mr. Goetz was inducted into the Mainframe Hall of Fame, which cited him as the “father of third-party software.” In 2007, Computerworld named him an “unsung innovator” of the computer industry.

In addition to Ms. Jacobs, he is survived by his wife, Norma (Wiener) Goetz; another daughter, Ruth Malloy; and five grandchildren.

Mr. Goetz continued to write into his 90s about software patentability and the need for patent protection for software. That, Professor Feldman said, was part of his legacy.

“He understood how powerful players might abuse the legal system to distort innovation, and how the legal system could be used to fight back,” she said. “He was an eternal optimist — he truly believed patents could protect real innovation and help society.”

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