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The Software Patents Situation and How It Affects Free Software

Free Open Source Software



In this latest summary of reports, we concentrate mainly on the effect of the current patent terrain on FOSS. One of the bigger developments last week was Mozilla's decision to add native Ogg Vorbis and Theora support to the build of Firefox 3.1, which is still buggy at this early alpha stage. Watch what they heroically said on the issue of patents.

[T]here is a risk to bundling even an open source codec like Theora because of the possibility of submarine patents -patents nobody knows about until a product that unknowingly infringes it, succeeds, becoming a target for the patent owner who will seek monetary compensation and a good licensing agreement. This is why the HTML 5 spec doesn’t recommend any encoder so vendors don’t have to choose between taking this kind of risk or not complying with the standard.

During today’s announcement at the Products and Technology Roadmap Mozilla Summit session, Mitchell Baker commented that Mozilla would be a bad target as it is a project with a product a lot of people cares about.

Mike Shaver, interim Mozilla’s VP of Engineering, also commented “Somebody had to do it. It’s good it was us”.


Prior to this, Opera was probably the main pusher towards it. In the case of Firefox, there's good reach (penetration) into many PCs, so it's truly a turning point. Other Web browsers might follow suit.

GNU/Linux



Proprietary media codecs are one ugly beast because each company tries to spread its own codecs to gain control. Standards that are patents-free are insufficient in this area, and regardless, with the attempt to pass files through the Web or among peers, there's a need to get quite a pile of non-free codecs. There are ways of addressing this problem. Digital Majority diverts attention to the explanation from Medibuntu:

Medibuntu is a packaging project dedicated to distributing software that cannot be included in Ubuntu for various reasons, related to geographical variations in legislation regarding intellectual property, security and other issues:

* patentability of software, algorithms, formats and other abstract creation * legal restrictions on freedom of speech or communication * restrictions on the use of certain types of technical solution, such as cryptography * legal restrictions on imports of software technology, requiring for example specific permissions * etc.


The sad reality is that codecs are one of the main issues and barriers to FOSS (this goes back to an older discussion). In order to limit their damage, software patents must be abolished and not spread to more countries.

Patent Trolls



Those with nothing to lose and those who haven't assets to defend are some of the more dangerous creatures out there. Ray Niro was mentioned here before [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9] and he wants the world to know, just like Nathan Myhrvold, that he wishes to abuse the industry peacefully, without being denounced or criticised.

Ray Niro doesn't like the term "patent troll," and has taken umbrage when that pejorative is used against his clients. It's not unusual for patent enforcers to ask judges to ban that term from court (as Rambus did recently.) Indeed, it's increasingly common for courts to police the use of "hot button" words generally.

Now we learn Niro doesn't care for the term "shell entities" either; court documents filed last month lay out his novel attempt to re-align the patent patois.


If policing "JPEG on a Website" [1, 2] seems acceptable, why not wish lists?

Europe's Back Door



The 'wish list' plague has already reached Europe, demonstrating the fact that software patents can be described in a way that makes them patentable in Europe. It's a loophole which 'artistic' patent solicitors can get away with it. [via Digital Majority]

During the impassioned debate over a proposed European directive on software patents, opponents of software patents mounted a graphic demonstration of the problem, entitled the Patented European Webshop. The website showed that despite official proscription of patents on "computer programs as such" in Europe, patents were nonetheless granted for common website functions. This propaganda coup elicited anxiety among small businesses and played an important in defeating the directive, which would have legitimized those patents.


These poor software patents need to be destroyed before they are put up for auction and then abused by the likes of Sheldon Goldberg. It seems like another patent troll.

In the late 1990s, few would have predicted the internet would become the giant artery we use today for our commerce, entertainment and daily activities. However, back in the late 1990s, there were patents floating around for many of the tools we use on the internet…and someone bought them.

Over the last 10 months the patent buyer, Sheldon Goldberg, has filed suit against some of the largest websites out there: Careerbuilder, Blockdot, CNet, Jabez Networks, The Washington Post, The Weather Channel, The New York Times and Rochester-based eBaum’s World. Goldberg himself is based on the west coast and is known for buying patents on a variety of inventions.


Microsoft



We now know that Microsoft uses its patents offensively and it's not reluctant to get aggressive.

Some months ago, Mark Shuttleworth told us that he was not worried about Microsoft going litigious. He was more worried about patent trolls. What Pamela Jones said in response to this was: "What Shuttleworth may not understand is that a patent troll can be a proxy for someone else who does have something to lose."

Microsoft may already be using some patent trolls against GNU/Linux [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10], but nobody knows for sure because there is no solid evidence. At the same time, based on the news, Microsoft is likely to continue to suffer from them.

Tucson-based Research Corporation Technologies said today it has won a reversal of a federal court decision that denied the local company's charges of patent infringement against computer giant Microsoft Corp.

In what RCT called a "stunning decision" Friday, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a decision of the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona which had held that six patents held by RCT for digital imaging technology were unenforceable due to inequitable conduct.


Even if the patent trolls had vanished overnight, this would not prevent Microsoft from funding the likes of SCO.

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