Sunday, May 16, 2010

Software patents

One of the biggest threats to free and open source software at the moment is the existence of software patents. News came out recently that not only is Apple suing HTC over its smartphones, but Steve Jobs also has his eyes on the brilliant open source video format Ogg Theora. Essentially what companies like Apple want is for everyone in the computing world to use the product they developed and to pay them a royalty for the privilege of using them. Clearly community-owned assets like open source software gets in the way of this kind of monopoly. Software patents are anti-competitive and unethical for a number of reasons, including:
  • They are designed to protect an individual's or an individual company's 'intellectual property'. It's not designed to protect public ownership of things.
  • They are designed to protect incumbents. Companies with good lawyers and deep pockets are collecting patents on just about everything to do with computing at the moment. If young, innovative companies want to make any progress in this kind of market, they have to sell their soul to incumbents before they begin.
  • They make lawyers wealthy at the expense of entrepreneurs.
...and if a company like Microsoft can patent something like the double click, we might as well all get out of computing before we all get sued.


  1. Yes, some features of modern computing that have been patented are ridiculous. I don't think software patents in general are unethical or anti-competitive, but frivolous patents probably are anti-competitive. Without patents, many developers would have no incentive to create anything new. What is needed is a balance between the need to protect one's creations (and thus to profit from one's effort) with the needs of developers to be able to create great new things. Frivolous patents certainly hinder new development. I think every developer deserves to profit from their hard work. If they want to give it away to the community, that is great, but there is nothing immoral or unethical about making a profit from one's hard work either.

  2. Software patents are a proven bad idea - see for an elaboration and a couple of links to more resources on the topic. We don't have to armchair philosophise on this - we have many years of history to look at, both before and after software patents, and I think the verdict is in.