Tuesday 11 May 2010

Musings from my Slashdot Journal...the (non) evil of software patents.

DRM evil!
Software patents evil!
Anything that isn't open source and written in Perl v1 evil!

Come on people, get a grip. There are many wonderful open source projects out there, hell, the machine I'm typing this on is running entirely on open source software and I like it that way, but why on earth does that mean that everyone should follow suit?

Why is DRM evil? Musicians, for example, have every right to apply DRM to their own work if they so wish - of course it's very often applied by the company who have bought the rights to the work, bu that's how some musicians get know, money for instruments and food and rent and the like. And some musicians don't apply DRM so their work gets a larger base of fans. It's up to them and that's the point...since when was taking a persons rights away from them considered to be 'free-er'?

Software patents are slightly trickier area. Take this example: I work in a bookshop and we spend a fair amount of our time sat in front of a spreadsheet typing in an ISBN, then title, author, publisher and price....repeat ad nauseum. It's time consuming, so I hacked together a little program in php that takes a barcode-scanned list of ISBNs and extracts the rest of the information from our company website and puts it all into a spreadsheet format - very handy indeed.
So what is patentable there? Well none of the code per-se, it's just the standard use of php. But what about the concept of extracting ISBN information? Nope, been done, both the concept (see: Amazon et al) and the method (screen scraping). I can't even patent the concept of using a program to extract information from a website. That's called the Internet, it exists. Remember, you can't patent stuff that is already in the public domain or the "blindingly obvious".

The fuzzy object that is the "open source community" is in fact terrified by restrictions like this for no good reason - we've developed our own, very effective, FUD campaign.

Getting a software patent is in fact tremendously difficult. You have to come up with something entirely novel in some way, and that's difficult when it comes to code....effectively pure logic. It's comparable with developing a new piece of mathematics, it's the result of saying "If X and Y then Z" where X and Y have never been compared before and Z is an entirely new result in the field; patentable software is effectively a new scientific discovery and should be treated as such. That's why companies employ people to come up with the ideas. You know, jobs and money and the like. See "musicians" and "food", above. It's also why there are huge groups of people doing the same for free, it's a satisfying intellectual hobby for many. But again, since when was removing somebody's right to take the money someone else is offering "free-er"? Just because people are willing to do something for free doesn't give them the moral high ground and the ability to *dictate* what others can and can't do with their skills. If you want something to be available for free, invent it yourself and give it away. It's not difficult....except the inventing bit.

So is that the way forward? Treating software like any other scientific discovery? When Einstein came up with SR it was very much a case of taking X (speed of light being invariable) and Y (speed = distance/time) and coming up with a new Z (SR), so it was without a doubt new and novel. So what did he do? He released it to the wider community for verification and (importantly), credit. You can't patent scientific concepts as Einstein well knew, what with working in a patent office and all.

So, in fact, software patents are very difficult to get and are unlikely to affect anyone's freedom do do anything other than ask "why didn't I think of that?". If you want to beat the patent process then get inventing, invent as much as you can, and make sure it's out there in the public domain. Comms satellites can't be patented because they were accurately described by Clarke many years before we launched one. We just need lots of Clarkes. What if we don't patent a good idea and somebody get their first? Then we should have spent more time inventing and a little less time whining about the unfairness of the world. The world's unfair, get over it. There's better things to be doing than whining.

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