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02.10.11

Eclipse Foundation Director: “Software Patents Are Basically a Bad Idea”; IBM Still Celebrating Patents

Posted in IBM, Microsoft, Patents at 5:01 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Eclipse 3.6 Helios

Summary: Mike Milinkovich is unhappy about software patents and at IBM it’s business as usual (more software patents)

UNREST over the issue of software patents is growing. Developers are as mad as Hell as they’re not gonna take this anymore. OK, maybe it’s not that serious, but very few developers actually support software patents. Support for this curse comes mostly from lobbyists of large companies such as Microsoft, as well as their lawyers, who simply profit from software patents. In the next post we’ll cover some developments around the world and in this post we’ll present some opinions of developers who speak out.

OMG!Ubuntu, which typically avoids anything ‘political’, has just made an exception. There is an unusual story from this site, courtesy of Dave Lane from Christchurch, NZ. “Why Software Patents are worse than useless” is the headline of the post which also dares to criticise Microsoft (yes in OMG!Ubuntu, believe it or not!):

But here’s the clincher: MS had tried to submit the same patent in New Zealand after the applications were denied by the US, Europe, South African, and Japanese patent offices for being obvious and subject to prior art. They thought they could count on the incompetence of the NZ patent assessors – and they would’ve been right had it not been for our challenge! It was a disgusting and highly unethical move by Microsoft. But if we had only caught one, how many other trivial software patents (or those subject to prior art) had already been passed? How many were waiting for some unethical kiwi patent troll (or worse yet, one of the multinational corporations who hold approximately 90% of NZ patents) to decide to start sabre rattling?

The Microsoft Patent FUD Threat Bomb

And then in May 2007, it began: Microsoft accused Linux and open source software of infringing on 235 of its patents.

Not only did Microsoft not bring a lawsuit against anyone, Microsoft’s General Counsel Brad Smith and licensing chief Horacio Gutierrez simply stated didn’t even mention which patents Linux and other FOSS software infringed.

Microsoft, with the best lawyers money can buy, felt that they could derail the entire FOSS software movement simply by threatening the possibility of suing for patent infringement. Clearly their goal with the statement was to strike fear into businesses with deep pockets (who, surprise surprise, are most often the targets of patent infringement suits) who were toying with the idea of investing in and/or adopting FOSS. Of course, similar threats could be just as effective against proprietary software users.

To me, not only was that unethical – and exceeding immature (I would’ve been embarrassed to death if I was either of those two Microsofties making that claim on the record): “yes, we think you’re infringing on our patents… but we won’t tell you which ones! Nee nar nee nar.” It also illustrated for me the fundamental wrongness of software patents. Let me try to explain.

If I, or my colleagues, are cutting code to solve a problem, it was almost certain that the use case we were codifying had been seen by someone else, somewhere in the world. And perhaps some component of it was patented. The odds were almost 100% that software we were incorporating into our customer’s solutions from the cornucopia of FOSS could arguably been seen to infringe on someone’s software patent somewhere. How could we ever hope to know?

The answer is: we wouldn’t. Not until we (or, more likely, our customers) received an infringement notice.

Despite IBM's influence over Eclipse, Mike Milinkovich slams software patents (IBM is in favour of software patents). Watch what he says in response to the questions: “Are you worried about the Red Hat settlement with Acacia? And what about patent trolls in general?”

I’m not worried about the Red Hat ruling. Software patents are basically a bad idea. There might even be an occasional software patent that is a good idea, but the pace at which software has been patented over the last 15 years and the sheer number of patents tells you that the implementation of software patents is bogus. There is no excuse for the software patents that are out there, and most of the patents I have read do not strike me in any way as innovative. We have a problem, and there is no way the open source community can stick its head in the sand and pretend it does not exist. I think Red Hat coming up with a solution is actually important for them. Yes, it would be lovely if we could make the US government agree that software patents should just go away. The companies which are big supporters of the open source community… I’m not sure it’s fair to criticise them for making the best of a bad situation. It’s up to them to make the best of a bad hand. I don’t fault Red Hat for resolving the suit. None of us knows what’s in that agreement, but I would not be surprised if they managed to write the agreement with some protections for their downstream consumers.

It’s an incredibly complex issue. I don’t think it’s going to go away. I don’t think somehow pretending open source is somehow immune from patent trolls or patents in general is a very wise course of action.

That’s a bold thing to say. One must remember the shadow of IBM, which is the largest patentor. There is more of that baggage from IBM but none from Novell in this new roundup of Utah patents, which starts with:

Risk assessment within an aircraft, patent No. 7,885,908, and risk assessment between airports, patent No. 7,885,909, invented by Robert Lee Angell of Salt Lake City, Robert R. Friedlander of Southbury, Conn., and James R. Kraemer of Santa Fe, N.M., assigned to IBM Corp. of Armonk, N.Y.

Despite the mischiefs of Samsung, IBM has also just signed a patent deal with it. Among the early articles about it [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9] we found out that the patent lawyers community called it “[t]he biggest cross-licensing deal the world has ever seen” (yes, Samsung too is one of the top patentors). With a deal like this they are leaving everyone else outside, uncovered by a massive pile of patents. Here is how they puts it in their press release:

Over the past several decades, IBM and Samsung have built strong patent portfolios covering a wide range of technologies including semiconductors, telecommunications, visual and mobile communications, software and technology-based services. This cross-licensing agreement enables the two companies to innovate and operate freely while using each other’s patented inventions to help keep pace with sophisticated technology and business demands.

Well, these two companies could also “innovate and operate freely” without having patents at all. Creating all these market barriers is simply a way of impeding small companies. IBM can be selfish about it as long as it serves shareholders’ interests, i.e. as long as it causes no PR damage.

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