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[DotGNU]Dvorak: "Patent Riots" of 2003

From: Seth Johnson
Subject: [DotGNU]Dvorak: "Patent Riots" of 2003
Date: Fri, 05 Sep 2003 00:35:28 -0400


Patent Riots of 2003 

By John C. Dvorak 
September 2, 2003 

Well, the title of this column may be something of an exaggeration, but
there seems to be a strong protest movement that has begun in Europe
regarding software patents. It could easily become a juggernaut that will
make legislative bodies reconsider the tendency to approve dubious copyright
and patent laws that benefit nobody but large corporations. In the copyright
arena, there are a lot of people complaining about how Disney made its
fortune using public domain stories and characters such as Sleeping Beauty
and Bambi (to name a very few), then spent most of its efforts preventing
any of its own creations from ever becoming public domain. That battle is
looming next. For now, the issue is how oppressive the laws are surrounding
software patents. And remember that before 1980 a software patent was
incredibly rare.

The protest fomenter is the Foundation for Free Information
Infrastructure¬óFFII (¬óbased in Germany. It has organized a lot
of physical protests and now is promoting online protests to shut down Web
sites. Much traffic from shuttered sites gets redirected to the protest page A laundry list of examples, the "list of
horrors" at details many
of the complaints.

None of this is a surprise. The tendency to allow patents for just about any
concept has been encouraged by governments worldwide. That lawyers are
behind this is no coincidence. It's is a pure bonanza for them.
Unfortunately, it has the potential to kill innovation and progress. And
clearly this is not what the original concept of patents was all about.

I was the moderator for a Commonwealth Club debate between fabled Law
Professor Larry Lessig and Todd Dickinson a couple of years ago. Dickinson
was the director of the US Patent and Trademark Office under Clinton and a
huge promoter of the idea that business models should be patented. From what
I could tell, he thought everything should be patented. So I asked him if a
football play could be patented. He said probably not, since there had to be
something technological about it to qualify. "But what if this was a timing
play?" I asked. My jaw dropped when he said it could probably get a patent!
I was stunned at such an outrageous and stupefying notion. What can you say
to a guy like this?

For a moment I thought about some plays that might get patented. Since then,
I've heard tales about patents for how kids can swing on trees and thousands
of other idiotic patent ideas. Dumb patents have been around from the first
days, but software patents are a recent affliction, and they're going to
kill the computer business. Here are two examples from the FFII horror-story

The first is the Ugly TrueType and OpenType Font Display Patent. According
to the FFII site: "Rendering of Fonts is ugly and slow on Free Software
Systems. This is because when the TrueType standard was promoted by Apple
and Microsoft, they held a few patents which they never asserted. The
FreeType project has asked Apple to clarify the situation, but did not get
an answer. Instead, fearful customers of Linux distributors such as SuSE and
Redhat (sic) have demanded that any possibly infringing FreeType features be
disabled on these distributions. TrueType is the dominating font standard
and it is also a part of new standards such as OpenType, in which Adobe
participates. Adobe also holds a few patents on which OpenType infringes.
These formats must be supported if GNU/Linux/XFree users are to be able to
use existing fonts on their platform of choice."

And then there is one of many Adobe actions. This one is good since it
impinges on GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program): "In summer 2001 Adobe
attacked Macromedia for infringing on its US patent no. 5546528 which lays
claim to the idea of adding a third dimension to menus by grouping them as
tabbed palettes one behind the other. The European Patent Office (EPO) has
illegally granted EP0689133 with exactly the same set of claims and priority
date of 1994-06-23 on 2001-08-06, after five years of examination period.
Many programs, including free software such as The GIMP, infringe on this
patent and will therefore be at the mercy of Adobe, if the EPO's practice of
granting software patents is made enforceable by a Directive from the
European Commission."

I have been relentlessly looking at these and other issues and must conclude
that the way things are currently rigged, the big companies can easily lord
it over the small fry unless the small fry are also loaded. This is neither
a level playing field nor a productive environment.

What do I tell people who see this as a problem? I just tell them to patent
every idea they can and never produce any sort of product. It looks
impossible to develop anything in this environment except patents and
lawsuits. Yeah, like this is going to fix the economy. My conclusion:
support the FFII.

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