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  1. How To Defend Against Software Patent FUD - Jonathan Pryor's web log
    1. How To Defend Against Software Patent FUD

How To Defend Against Software Patent FUD - Jonathan Pryor's web log

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How To Defend Against Software Patent FUD

You don't.


Context: for years, Mono has been the target of FUD because of potential software patent issues. For years the Mono community has attempted to defend from these attack, sometimes successfully.

Recently, someone asked on mono-list about ways to pre-emptively answer the FUD so that it would become a non-issue. I responded, and had several people suggest that I blog it. Here we go.

To begin, there are several problems with defending against software patent FUD, starting with software patents themselves:

  1. Software patents suck.
  2. Software patents really suck. (Specifically, The "Don't Look" Problem section.)
  3. Software patents really, really suck. (Related)
  4. The anti-Mono FUDsters apparently can't see the forest for the trees.

I imagine that most people reading this will agree with the first three points, so it is the fourth that I will attempt to focus on.

Specifically, the anti-Mono FUDsters seem to spend so much time on a tree (Microsoft) that they either miss or minimize the forest of actual patent problems, patent trolls, etc.

So for once, I'll (non-seriously) throw the FUD:

A long time ago, Wang created a patent that "covered a method by which a program can get help from another computer application to complete a task." Microsoft licensed the patent from Wang. Sun did not. In 1997, Eastman Kodak Company bought Wang, thus acquiring this patent. Kodak then sued Sun, claiming that Java infringed this patent. Kodak won, and they later settled out of court.

Now, for my non-serious steaming pile of FUD, in the form of a question: Did Sun acquire the ability to sublicense these patents from Kodak? If Sun can sublicense the patents, then GPL'd Java is fine. If Sun can't, then Java cannot be GPL'd, and any company making use of Java could be subject to a lawsuit from Kodak.

(I would hope that this is yes, but I have no idea, and the lack of patent sub-licensing has come up before.)

So do we need to worry about Java? I have no idea. I mention it to raise a larger point:

It Doesn't Matter. Anyone can hold a patent, for anything, and sue anyone at any time. Thus, Gnome is not free of patent issues, KDE is not free of patent issues, Linux is not free of patent issues, Python is not free of patent issues, Ruby is not free of patent issues.... Nothing is free of patent issues.

(Consider: do you think that the Python Software Foundation has signed a patent license with Kodak? Has Red Hat? I doubt it. Furthermore, I find it hard to believe that something as flexible as Python wouldn't violate the aforementioned Wang patent, especially when you get into COM interop/etc. on Windows...)

Having said the above, a related question becomes: How do you avoid violating someone's patents? You don't (insert more laughter). You could try restricting yourself to only using software that's at least 20 years old, but you won't gain many users that way. It also won't work, for at least two reasons: (1) submarine patents -- not all patents that would have been in effect 20 years ago have necessarily expired (though submarine patents shouldn't exist for ~too much longer); and (2) look at the drug patent industry, where to prevent patented drugs from "going generic" the drug companies take the patent-expired drug(s), combine them with other drugs, then patent the result. I don't think it will take too long for Software companies to start doing this if they feel that it's necessary, and once they do, even using known-patent-expired programs won't be safe, as merely combining them together may be covered by an unexpired patent. Yay.

The only other way to avoid software patents is to perform a patent search, which is extremely tricky (as software patents are deliberately vague), and if you miss a patent and get sued over it, you're now liable for treble damages. You're almost always better to not look at software patents. (Isn't it funny how something that was supposed to "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts" can't be used by those it's supposed to help? Isn't it hilarious?)

With all this in mind, you can see why patent FUD is hard to fight, because there's no way to dismiss it. Software patents are a reality, they're ugly, but they can't be avoided. (Yet they must be ignored, to avoid increased liability.) My problem is that the anti-Mono people only seem to focus on patents with respect to Mono and Microsoft, ignoring the rest of the software industry. They're ignoring the (gigantic) forest so that they can pay attention to a single tree, Microsoft.

What I find even "funnier" is that Microsoft supposedly holds a number of patents in a number of areas frequently used by open-source projects, such as HTML, CSS, C++, XML, and others. So why don't we ever see any suggestions to avoid these technologies because the Big Bad Microsoft might sue?

For that matter, (again) considering how vague software patents tend to be, wouldn't many Microsoft patents on .NET stand a chance at being applicable toward Java, Python, and other projects? (Again) Why just focus on Mono?

Final note: I am a Software Engineer, not a patent lawyer. Feel free to ignore the entire rant, but I would appreciate it if a little more thought went into all the anti-Mono propaganda.

Posted on 19 Jan 2009 | Path: /development/mono/ | Permalink
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