Alan Cox on software patents

Discussion in 'NZ Computing' started by Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Oct 3, 2005.

  1. The August issue of Linux Format magazine has an interview with Alan
    Cox. Man, his beard is almost as long as Richard Stallman's.

    Anyway, he had some interesting things to say about patents:

    The patents system is essentially a gambling machine for people with
    no morals -- if you file enough dodgy lawsuits, eventually you'll win,
    and you'll win so much money that it's worth playing the game. So
    that's a fundamental problem with the patents system, but it's not a
    problem with the idea of patents themselves, it's a problem with the
    implementation.

    And their applicability to software:

    When you come to software you've got all sorts of other problems,
    because software is a literary work. A long time ago there was an
    argument about whether software is a machine or a literary work.
    You can't copyright a machine; you can patent ideas with it, but
    everybody else can build the machine so long as they've got patent
    licences. They can look at your machine and say, "I can see how to
    do this without the patent, or after your patent has expired".
    The decision at the time, which is actually written into things
    like WIPO [the World Intellectual Property Organisation], was that
    software is a literary work. So patents don't apply to literary works,
    at least until the Americans got involved, and if you try and apply
    patents to literary work all kinds of things start to go very, very
    pear-shaped in the legal framework, because the author of a literary
    work also has various other protections under WIPO that appear to
    conflict with software being patentable. Because a third party has
    no right to extract money essentially from publication of a literary
    work, and that was something that was done to ensure that
    governments couldn't bring all sorts of interesting tariffs. It all
    gets really messy.

    How companies are playing patent games:

    LXF: And the current agreements over patents worldwide means
    you get companies such as Microsoft being granted various software
    patents in New Zealand, where they know no one is going to look
    very carefully...
    AC: Yes. That's not a software thing. People have been playing
    games like that for hundreds of years. The whole history of the
    steam engine was held up because the original creators of the steam
    engine thought high-pressure steam was a dangerous evil and sort of
    refused to grant rights to their patents to any of the high-pressure
    steam people. High-pressure steam was the future, as it turns out,
    but it was held up for almost 20 years.
    The same has happened with IP version 6. You notice that everyone
    is saying IP version 6 is this, is that, and there's all this research
    software up there. No one at Cisco is releasing big IPv6 routers.
    Not because there's no market demand, but because they want 20
    years to have elapsed from the publication of the standard before
    the product comes out -- because they know that there will be
    hundreds of people who've had guesses at where the standard
    would go and filed patents around it. And it's easier to let things
    lapse for 20 years than fight the system.
    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Oct 3, 2005
    #1
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