07.27.08

Microsoft Open Sores (May Contain Patents)

Posted in Asia, Europe, Free/Libre Software, Microsoft, Patents at 5:08 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

T

o demonstrate the generality of software patents, consider this new find which relates to the description of a hierarchical (i.e. tree-based) filesystem structure as — wait for it — a tree! Yes, that’s a patent in the United States and it’s owned by Microsoft Corporation, the ‘innovative’ powerhouse that thought about representing a filing system as a tree, never mind prior art like Norton Commander which I personally used long before Windows 3.1 even debuted.

Remember the Tree-View mode in many file management applications? It’s shocking to know that this omnipresent feature was patented by Microsoft back in 1995 (granted in 1997). I’m not very sure about the implications, though. The patent is so general that it can be related to many things from tree-mode to virtual filesystems. Check out claim no. 3 of the patent for the most clear part.

If this is representative of the quality of Microsoft’s patents, then it’s clear that they should be trivial to have re-examined and then trashed. According to an article published at OSCON, Microsoft is not worried about open source patents, but let’s take a closer look at the context in which this was claimed.

One of the funniest exchanges between Ramji and the OSCON audience was the following:

“Do you feel like you’re screwing a porcupine and you’re one prick against thousands?” the OSCON audience member asked Ramji.

Ramji politely replied:

“It takes time to change and I knew that I’d be unpopular when I took this job…”

In other words, software patents are not his concern, but he was merely assigned to stand up there and smile in order for Microsoft to enter open source conferences, mitigate criticism in this way, and make preparations for future legal action, if not just some more threats and extortion.

“To Microsoft, it’s nothing but a strategic marketing ploy.”In essence, Ramji is the equivalent of a dunce entertaining an evil emperor and acting innocent because never personally issues an order to attack. He believes (or wants to believe) that it’ll keep conscience clear while he’s making lots of money and by all means helping Microsoft’s fight against Free software. Bill Hilf has already run away from this position and so did Martin Taylor. You can’t buy forgiveness and remorse by just swapping heads forever. They all inherit the same burden and guilt.

Ramji too should realise that obeying commands “from above” makes his equally guilty and after last year’s unsubstantiated smears against tens of thousands of developers, his hands are equally red. To Microsoft, it’s nothing but a strategic marketing ploy [1, 2, 3].

Having already surrendered to Microsoft, the OSI has to be more polite. It’s skeptical nonetheless.

As to the DMCA and so-called Trusted Computing, I think that the SE Linux project has made it pretty clear that one can build a secure operating system without resorting to secrets at the implementation or interoperability level.

In this new post, the OSI is asking Microsoft to help abolish software patents and also fight the DMCA. Are they dreaming? Tim, who wrote this post, works at Red Hat, which was attacked by what turns out to be a Microsoft-connected patent troll (at least one of them). Red Hat has posted this update on the situation.

Since the settlement of the Firestar lawsuit last month, we’ve been asked to explain why Red Hat settled the case, rather than fighting to invalidate the patent at issue in the lawsuit. The news some days back that the Patent Office had issued an initial, non-final action rejecting the claims in a re-examination of the same patent has inspired similar questions. Here are our thoughts.

[...]

But as Groklaw reported last week, the ‘502 patent “isn’t knocked out yet.” This office action is just an initial step in a proceeding that is far from final. The patent holder will probably argue to the examiner that the patent is valid over the prior art, a process that may repeat itself many times during the course of the re-exam.

For Microsoft to give up patent plot against FOSS, the solution needs to come (be imposed) from above. Having recently recognised some serious questions, the USPTO seems just a tad wobbly on software patents. To use its own words:

Computer programs are often recited as part of a claim. USPTO personnel should determine whether the computer program is being claimed as part of an otherwise statutory manufacture or machine. In such a case, the claim remains statutory irrespective of the fact that a computer program is included in the claim. The same result occurs when a computer program is used in a computerized process where the computer executes the instructions set forth in the computer program. Only when the claimed invention taken as a whole is directed to a mere program listing, i.e., to only its description or expression, is it descriptive material per se and hence nonstatutory.

Since a computer program is merely a set of instructions capable of being executed by a computer, the computer program itself is not a process and USPTO personnel should treat a claim for a computer program, without the computer-readable medium needed to realize the computer program’s functionality, as nonstatutory functional descriptive material. When a computer program is claimed in a process where the computer is executing the computer program’s instructions, USPTO personnel should treat the claim as a process claim. ** When a computer program is recited in conjunction with a physical structure, such as a computer memory, USPTO personnel should treat the claim as a product claim. **

Europe should be careful too, not just India. The patent trolls and their junk/software patents gradually cross the Atlantic. Seen a few days ago: [via Digital Majority]

A firm tries to patent online wish lists in Europe. Shall we stop them?

The patent No. 6,917,941, appears to cover the invention of creating a list of things in a database. It was issued in July 2005 (sometime after wish lists were invented on the Internet I believe) and defendants include a long list of startups like On My List, Remember The Milk, WishList and Zlio. Channel Intelligence is not suing Amazon or Ebay, probably because these are large companies which would send Channel Intelligence packing.

Making a living using pieces of paper is not the same thing is making a living writing programs. Some selfish people try to change the rules.

“There’s nobody getting rich writing software that I know of.”

Bill Gates

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