06.06.08

Software Patents Again and Trolls on the Offensive

Posted in Free/Libre Software, Microsoft, Patents, Ubuntu at 4:30 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Assorted news on a new breed of trolls (software patents)

An issue close to our hearts is the nature of software patents, particularly their impact on Free software and relentless attempts to force the world as a whole (not just a handful of nations) to adopt, accept and and recognise them. So here is a roundup of news and picks.

Free Software Icons Comment on Software Patent

This new column piece from Jeremy Allison was aired by ZDNet and also appeared in Tux Deluxe. He uses an astronomical exploration analogy to explain why software patents are a bad, bad idea.

What innovations are we stifling right now with patents that lock out the scientists, amateur and professional, from research ? What new software can’t be created due to these restrictions. We may never know what we didn’t discover or create due to their chilling effects.

It’s like people claiming ownership on particular areas of the sky, and just as absurd. “You can’t look at that star, it’s mine, I patented looking there. Here’s a coin-operated telescope if you want to peek”. Good luck making scientific progress in astronomy with these restrictions.

Unless you are a lawyer or an economist, it’s unlikely to that this is beneficial to you. Glyn Moody published his exchange on this issue with Mark Shuttleworth. It touches on software patents.

As for patents in software, I think society does a very bad deal when it gives someone a monopoly in exchange for nothing. The traditional patent deal was you gave someone a monopoly in exchange for disclosure of a trade secret. You can’t really have trade secrets in software.

Of course, the entrenched interests like to frame this as “patents are all about innovation”, when they really aren’t. There’s very strong, academic, peer-reviewed research that suggests that patents stifle the pace of change and innovation.

[...]

The real insight with patents is that what society is buying with that monopoly is disclosure. And so the real benefit to society is accelerated disclosure of new ideas – not convincing people to invest. People have ideas all the time. You can’t stop the human mind from innovating. People do research and development to win customers, that’s what it’s really about. It’s not to file patents. So the entrenched patent holders really aren’t doing much of a service to society when they articulate their position in very flawed terms.

Watch what he then says about GNOME:

With regard to GNOME and Microsoft, I’m not concerned. My view is that to win, you have to have your own vision. You have to have a very clear idea of what you can deliver that’s unique. You can’t go around sort of chasing someone else’s coat tails. So while I respect the people in the free software community who invest a lot of time in making compatible implementations of other people’s technology, I don’t think that’s the real recipe for success for free software. We have to give people a reason to use our platform for itself, not because it’s a cheap version of someone else’s.

Let’s emphasise this again: “We have to give people a reason to use our platform for itself, not because it’s a cheap version of someone else’s.” Mono developers, are you listening? So while Mark is not overly concerned about legal aspects of this, the technical perspective is one to bear in mind as well. We showed this before.

“Efficient Data Processing” Patent

Another day, another patent lawsuits.

Hewlett-Packard does not agree with a jury’s decision last week to pay damages to Cornell University for infringing on a patent, but the company declined to say Thursday if it will appeal the case.

HP was ordered to pay Cornell damages of US$184 million in the case involving a patent that boosts computer speed by enabling more efficient data processing.

Community Patent

A tireless push for the problematic Community patent [1, 2, 3] seems to continue, according to this new document [PDF]. Digital Majority identifies fragments of interest in the following article.

Funnily enough, national patent offices look like being one of the major remaining obstacles to the creation of a Community patent. At the same European Council meeting referred to in the FT’s trademark story, it looks like European ministers decided that if there are to be any major breakthroughs with regard to a Community patent and an EU-wide patent litigation system, these will not now happen under the Slovenian presidency. Instead, it will be down to the French to force the pace.
While translations officially remain the major obstacle, it is also the case that a Community patent will mean significantly reduced income for most national patent offices in Europe as they will no longer receive renewal fees in the way that they do currently. So, although a Community patent may be what European industry wants and maybe what many of the EU member states want, individual countries have it in their power to hold things up or to derail progress altogether. In off the record conversations, Austria seems to get a lot of mentions in this regard, as does Spain, as does Finland. Whether this is fair or not I couldn’t say: one of the problems with these negotiations is that they take place behind closed doors and so no-one who is not involved can be certain as to what is happening.

Patent Trolling

Remember Patent TrollTracker, who was bullied and sued by patent trolls for revealing what they really are [1, 2, 3]? Here is an update covering the patent trolls’ assault on the individual and the company he worked for. As you ought to expect, patent trolls are remorseless when it comes to the legal system; they exploit and take advantage of it. Sue, sue, sue, or at least intimidate to extract royalties. That’s the business model.

Previously, I explained how Rick Frenkel was sued twice for defamation shortly after revealing he was the author of the now-shuttered Patent Troll Tracker blog. One of those plaintiffs is Johnny Ward, Jr., a Longview, Texas lawyer who’s popular as local counsel in E.D. Texas patent lawsuits; he’s also the son of federal judge T. John Ward, the judge largely responsible for building up the Eastern District as the nation’s most popular (or infamous) patent venue. The other lawsuit was brought by Eric Albritton, another Longview lawyer who has partnered with Ward Jr. on many cases, including ESN v. Cisco, the patent litigation that is the subject of the allegedly defamatory PTT posts.

To give you an idea of how scummy patent trolls can get, watch this short report. [via Digital Majority]

Last year, we noted the trend for various patent hoarding entities to set up a group of shell companies with which to sue companies. Part of the reason for doing so was to make it that much more difficult for the companies being sued to even know who they were fighting against. However, one big patent hoarding organization had another plan too… which just backfired. Plutus IP is a somewhat secretive patent holding company that has set up a bunch of shell companies all named after stars — and apparently it tried to pull a little trick by shuffling patents around among the shells.

Nathan “Shell” Myhrvold [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6], how much does your former employer (Microsoft) love you?

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