You may already know my feelings about software patents, I’ve mentioned them before, but after the events of today I felt it was worth exploring the subject a little more. In case you haven’t heard, Microsoft themselves have now fallen foul of the software patent system in the US. News stories all over the net are reporting that they’ve been ordered to stop selling their popular Word package by a court in Texas. It’s hard to say just yet how serious this ruling will be for them or even if it will stick, but understandably it’s big news. I use OpenOffice.org but even an Open Source advocate like me can’t deny most people in the world have used Microsoft Office at some point in their lives, it’s still a dominant product. The problem in this case seems to revolve around the use of XML to specify formatting in OOXML document files. The patent is so vague it seems it could apply to almost any use of XML, a technology designed to standardize data transfer and help remove the glut of competing standards. But if using XML in this fashion was patented back in 1998, then what use is it as a standard?! Many people will be quick to gloat at Microsoft and take great pleasure in this decision. You might expect me to be among that group but I’m not, and here’s why. I’m not concerned for Microsoft or their troubles, I really couldn’t care less what happens to them. In many ways perhaps this is poetic justice for their aggressive use of software patents against other companies, so it’s hard to have sympathy. It’s also easy to laugh at them and cry “live by the sword, die by the sword” but the reality is software patents are a problem for all of us. They’re stifling creativity in the software sector and scaring developers, which is ironic when you consider why patents were actually invented in the first place. No pun intended.
Being a European I could claim security in the fact that software patents are the preserve of US law, but this would be short sighted and naive. There are many groups lobbying for software patents to be brought into the EU and they cannot be underestimated. Why they are pursing this I’m not entirely sure, but many companies in the US make money purely by producing nothing more technical than law suits, not lines of code. Does that constitute a software company? Not in my book. Such companies are rightly dubbed “patent trolls” by the wider IT community. I would hate to see these kind of people setting up shop in Europe as well, in my own back yard no less. Today’s news reminds us that software patents are a problem for everyone, including Microsoft, and I would like to think that today’s verdict might, just might, make some of these large software vendors who’ve defended software patents in the past realise they have no place in today’s software industry. The cynic in me doubts it will make much difference, but without hope we have nothing. If you live in the EU visit StopSoftwarePatents.org and consider signing their petition. There’s also a lot of other useful information about the situation in Europe on there.
Edit: Thanks to Fab for reminding me of the other link I couldn’t think of – StopSoftwarePatents.eu
I thought long and hard about the best way I could explain the many evils of software patents to you, but to be honest I can’t compete with the brilliance of Eben Moglen’s speech on the subject. So I won’t try. If you can’t see why software patents are a problem, then I encourage you to listen to episode 0x05 of the Software Freedom Law Show. It includes Eben’s speech to a group in India where he takes us through the history of patent law in the US, then picks it apart argument by argument. It’s entertaining and informative. I defy anyone to defend the validity software patents after hearing this. The issue is not whether programmers should be rewarded for their creativity and earn from it, of course they should! The issue is that this system actually stifles some of the most creative minds in our industry, and stops programmers being innovative in the first place; that can’t be good for anyone. I should admit in the interests of full disclosure that I produce this podcast for the good folks at the Software Freedom Law Center. This doesn’t cloud my judgment about the speech however, listen to it and please help spread the word. The more people who hear this message the better, particularly those in political office and within the legal system. They often don’t understand what they are presiding over, and it’s up to us to help them.
Thanks for listening. I hope one day we will all look back at software patents as a thing of the past.