Martin Campbell-Kelly of the University of Warwick paints an interesting historical narrative about software patents; namely, that they are simply a natural progression toward the "virtualization of invention." What used to be mechanical, and then became integrated into hardware, finally is ultimately virtualized into pure software products. For examples, he cites cryptography machines and postage metering.
He also adds a very important point about the value of software patents: it allows the "little guy" in agains the entrenched incumbents. In the postal meter markets, Pitney-Bowes was the original inventor and patent-holder on postage meter devices, and software patenting allowed virtual postage meter companies to enter the market without being crushed by the incumbent.