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08.02.09

Patents Roundup: CityWare Under Siege, Kappos for Change We Can Believe in, and Skype

Posted in America, Europe, Free/Libre Software, Patents at 3:24 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

David Kappos

Summary: Accumulation of patent news of interest to Free software supporters

TODAY’s roundup starts with the news about CityWare. This was also mentioned the other day.

A small Web development and open source software company called CityWare was recently named alongside Google, Yahoo, Amazon and other software giants in a patent infringement lawsuit. What makes this unusual is that CityWare has no products or customers and no longer exists. The company was formed by software developer Nate Neel in 2004, but folded soon after due to lack of customers.

This comes to show that Free software is already a victim of this broken system where patent trolls use software patents as well. Among those who promote this system we have Gartner’s Brian Prentice [1, 2, 3], who carries on raving about software patents while describing the roles of those who exploit them.

The Oligopolists -The beneficiaries of the status quo. If Silicon Valley had a gentleman’s club, filled with over-stuffed leather sofas, seersucker suits and the stench of Cuban cigars, then these guys would be charter members. There’s is a genteel world were club members can civilly discuss their commercial disputes over a single malt whiskey and resolve them with a handshake and a cross-licensing agreement. And while cub members like to say their doors are open to those less well off, the requirements of membership – massive patent portfolios, the money to pay for a small army of lawyers and regular appearances at big ticket political fundraising events – means they can relax in the comfort of knowing they won’t be initiating new members any time soon.

Nice advocacy of patents there from Gartner.

There is slim hope for change now that David Kappos takes office. He calls patents “monopolies” and he shall preside over the USPTO. Here is his new statement. We wrote about this man’s background or actions in [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8] and here he is receiving accolades from those who sought a reform.

Senators who have spent years pushing an overhaul of patent law today praised President Barack Obama’s choice to lead the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, suggesting that nominee David Kappos could help jumpstart the stalled legislation.

“You have eminent experience in this field,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) told Kappos at his confirmation hearing. “I’m very proud of you for accepting this position.”

Europe too is getting its reformists in positions of power.

The GNU General Public Licence for software was, he says, the main subject of conversation between developers who put their work ethics before their own or their business’ interests.

Before he knew it, Josefsson was part of a movement which claims to be saving the world from corporate control. In 2002 he became one of the leading opponents of the EU’s software patent directive. He co-founded the Swedish chapter of the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII) with Engström and, without any knowledge of how to lobby politicians, he spearheaded the campaign against the directive.

“When the directive was proposed in 2002, I and many others started following this from scratch,” he says. “We were computer programmers, students or entrepreneurs, and we knew nothing about how the EU worked.

“It eventually developed into a grassroots movement equal in strength to the business associations and lobby groups you normally find in Brussels, to those whose views are normally heard and listened to,” he says.

Patent protest

The movement grew out of the blogosphere – or more correctly, Josefsson says, out of the ‘mailsphere’ – and the organising element was no individual or organisation, but a classical self-generating political process.

“It was like seeing a catastrophe about to happen. Imagine a bus about to drive into a crowd of people; you want to stop the bus before it happens. We didn’t have time to launch a proper organisation and we never asked questions about how we should do things. We just had to do it.”

By early 2005, more than 400,000 people had signed a petition against the software patent directive and later that year it was rejected by the Parliament.

In other interesting news, intellectual monopoly now arrives at another curious domain.

How Wolfram Alpha could change software

The upstart “computational knowledge engine” claims its results are original works, raising important questions about software and intellectual property

TechDirt has a a few words to add on the subject. It goes under the title “Can You Copyright Algorithmic Output?”

One of the biggest stories of the week was about Skype and once it is explored properly it turns out that patents are part of the problem which may shut Skype down. TechDirt has the gist:

Net2Phone Jumps Into The VoIP Patent Lawsuit Business: Sues Skype

[...]

In the last year, we’ve witnessed plenty of companies dig up VoIP patents with which to sue market innovator Vonage. Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and Nortel all were able to get Vonage to cough up some money, rather than continue to fight some questionable patents.

More here, here, and here:

Joltid, a company owned by Skype’s founders, merely licensed some of the system’s core technology to eBay when it sold Skype to the auction giant in 2005. Joltid now says that the license has been revoked and eBay is infringing on its rights by continuing to use the technology. The case is scheduled to go to court in June of 2010 but eBay is trying to replace the technology in the meantime. It may not succeed.

The president of the FFII says that “Skype [is] doing some copyright infringement by citing source code it does not own in US patent trials.” He links to this page from the SEC and some lessons worth learning are that: (i) Free software prevents risk of a project suddenly coming under survival threat; (ii) software patents are not beneficial to end users.

Free software is definitely going strong in some areas, especially in the server market. However, there are other areas where free software and free protocols have failed. Internet based voice and video communication is one of those areas. The market is basically fully owned by Skype, a piece of proprietary software based on a proprietary (and abusive) protocol in the hands the same company that runs eBay. Free software advocates have been saying “what if Skype was discontinued?” for years. Then I read about eBay considering shutting Skype down. Pardon?

Skype’s area of operation is a sordid mess of patent thickets and it is getting worse now that dictation becomes a patent (see corresponding USPTO page) and audio-casting too becomes a patent.

VoloMedia, a podcast analytics, advertising, and distribution company, just received a patent for “providing episodic media,” including podcasts. According to the company, which filed for the patent in November 2003, U.S. Patent 7,568,213 covers all episodic media downloads, not just the RSS-dependent downloads that power today’s podcasts. VoloMedia CEO Murgesh Navar says that the company doesn’t plan to go after individual podcasters, but that the company plans to “work collaboratively with key participants in the industry.” We do wonder, however, if VoloMedia can really claim to have invented podcasting in 2003, given that the concept was already under development by Dave Winer and others in late 2000 and early 2001.

This is another symptom of a broken patent system. It needs changing.

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