I don’t often comment on news and current events in my blog - I think there’s enough of that elsewhere on the web - but in this case I make an exception, simply because of the extreme reaction it has evoked within me. I’m talking about the recent verdict in the Kodak vs Sun case, of course, in which Kodak has somehow managed to convince a court that they own the ‘invention’ of letting software components communicate in order to ask each other for ‘help’. If there was ever an example of how utterly bonkers the patent situation in the US has become, this is it. In a way, we should thank Kodak for providing concrete proof of what would happen here in Europe if we follow the same road, and how software patents are the antithesis of innovation, not it’s protector. How else could a company that only recently became even remotely interested in software suddenly own the ‘idea’ that perhaps software components should collaborate? Well, that’s a newsflash, give the man a cigar. Preferably an exploding one.
Anyone who knows me will already know that I’m deeply opposed to software patents. Some might link this with the fact that I’m an open-source developer, but it’s far more than that. After all I also have a day job (which patent proponents say will be under threat if patents are not allowed) and run an IT company part-time. But no matter what role I’m doing, whether it’s open source development or writing proprietary software, software patents threaten it. Software development is all about rapid cycles and incremental innovation. Creativity is incremental. I think of software creation as much like a novel, or a piece of art. No artist will claim not to have been influenced or inspired by existing art. There are almost no genuinely new ideas, merely extensions, adaptations and improvements on existing ones. You can’t patent a creative process, no matter what the legal parasites who now specialise in exploiting the creativity of others by commoditising it try to claim. All you do is futher strengthen the positions of the corporate incumbents (as if they didn’t have enough advantages already), thereby destroying what is the ‘real’ engine of economic growth in every country - the small to medium sized business. And don’t tell me the SME can patent their ideas and therefore make a bundle - come on. Large corporations have enormous stockpiles of (largely vacuous) patents, and have the funds to fight them in court; a war of attrition likely to force SMEs to a settlement even if the claims are baseless. SMEs are lucky if they can afford a small number of patents, and therefore don’t have the clout of the incumbents to cross-license effectively. If it comes to a fight, they will be crushed, simply because of bulk - a mouse with a single sharp knife still can’t take a gorilla with a heavy machine gun.
Who wins? The patent office (who makes a tidy sum), and large multinationals. SMEs, local economies, and the consumer (because of the lack of competition and stifled innovation) all lose. I just hope the European parliament can see that, even if the commission cannot. People need to wake up and see that ‘Freedom to innovate’ as spouted by the pro-patent crowd really means ‘Freedom to continue to push our existing solutions and crush anyone who dares to challenge us while we do it’.
I think ‘Leader’ on ZDNet sums up the argument more eloquently than me. Groklaw is also always a good place to chat about these things, and to learn why we should not be complacent about this issue, lest we end up with the shambles that is the US system.