Bonum Certa Men Certa

Software Patents and Death by Patents

"We're awfully sorry, Mrs. Smith, but your husband's operation
is protected by a patent, so we'll have
to just leave him to die..."



The ethics of patents in general is a broad and sometimes very passionate debate. In certain domains, it can be a matter of life and death (just watch this video about Novartis). We recently gave some examples where sharing of knowledge results in improved drug development.

Glyn Moody has just identified another interesting post about the ethics of surgical patents, applied to more complicated operations. Under the heading "Patents Kill", he talks about monopolies on medical procedures:

Imagine being unable to use a life-saving technique on a patient simply because it was "patented", and the licensing fees were exorbitant. Imagine, indeed, the situation in developing countries that can't even afford medical equipment, much less absurd, intellectual monopolies.

There's a reason we don't have patents on such things: they represent basic human knowledge of the kind whose invention and transmission down the generations lies at the heart of our civilisation and humanity. The day we start charging for this kind of thing is the day we as a race are in deep, deep trouble.


Here is the cited post, which in turn cites another.

Of all the exclusions from patentability, most poignant is the bar on patenting methods of surgery, therapy or diagnosis practised on the human or animal body. While it seeks to release medical practitioners from the shackles of commercial monopoly and legal liability when choosing how best to treat their patients, many argue that its true effect is to stifle the creation, publication and promulgation of new techniques that save lives or improve their quality.


It is very unfortunate to see intellectual monopolies being imposed on the right to save the life of a friend, a spouse, a child, or any human being who is in disparate need. It surely puts in perspective the relative severity of software patents, which are means for killing competing computer programs.

There is this odd new video over at Linux.com (available as Ogg Theora) which speaks about a supposedly 'innovative' way of mixing Free software and patents.

Software patents underlie a novel open source business model (video)



[...]

Their company is called International Characters. It already has one software patent pending -- and professor Popowich assures us that the company has software that's ready to download and use today; that this isn't a pipe dream but a "right now" thing.

If nothing else, even if you disagree with the way International Characters is doing business, you've got to admit that they've come up with an interesting way to combine software patents with open source. Whether it will work -- and whether others follow in their footsteps -- is another matter. We'll just have to keep an eye on them and see how things go, won't we?


Another new article from Ars technica is interesting for the fact that it confirms yet again that this "reform" everyone speaks of is utterly ineffective. Call it a "PR charade" if you prefer.

Last September, the House of Representatives approved the Patent Reform Act of 2007, legislation that would make important changes to America's patent system. With the legislation being fiercely debated behind closed doors in the Senate, Ars takes a closer look at the legislation's provisions, the major players in the debate, and the legislation's prospects for curing what ails the American patent system.

[...]

The legislation does almost nothing to rein in the Federal Circuit's increasingly permissive attitude toward patents on abstract concepts like software, business methods, and mental processes. Only one provision of the Patent Reform Act addresses this issue: the House bill includes a prohibition on patents for tax planning methods.


As you can see, software patents remain unaddressable. As long as lobbyists rule and tame the system, law will be (re)shaped in a way such that monopolies benefit the most (while also whining the most loudly, as a crocodile's tears-type gesture to get people off their back).

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