Recently, the White House has adopted a scheme that we Brits have been using for some time now: online petitions. The basic idea is the same:
You may use this platform on the White House website to create and sign petitions that call for the federal government to take action on a range of issues. For each topic included in We the People, you can petition the Administration to address a problem, support or oppose a proposal, or otherwise change or continue federal government policy or actions. As explained below, if a petition meets the signature goal within the designated period, the White House will respond to that petition in a timely fashion.
The threshold for a reply is actually reasonable low – currently 25,000 signatures within 30 days. That's meant all kinds of interesting – and vaguely surprising – petitions have received an answer from the White House.
Here's one of them:
Direct the Patent Office to Cease Issuing Software Patents
The patent office's original interpretation of software as language and therefor patentable is much closer to reality and more productive for innovation than it's current practice of issuing software patents with no understanding of the patents being issued.
Under the patent office's current activity, patents have been come a way to stifle innovation and prevent competition rather than supporting innovation and competitive markets. They've become a tool of antitrust employed by large companies against small ones.
To return sanity to the software industry – one of the few industries still going strong in America – direct the patent office to cease issuing software patents and to void all previously issued software patents.
Even though that failed to reach the 25,000 signature threshold, the White House has nonetheless offered a reply, which is noteworthy in itself. Here's the main thrust of its argument:
The America Invents Act directly addresses certain categories of patents, like patents involving tax strategies, but it did not change the law regarding the patentability of software-related inventions. There's a lot we can do through the new law to improve patent quality and to ensure that only true inventions are given patent protection. But it's important to note that the executive branch doesn't set the boundaries of what is patentable all by itself. Congress has set forth broad categories of inventions that are eligible for patent protection. The courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have interpreted the statute to include some software-related inventions.
That's basically trying to off-load blame on to Congress and the courts. But that disappointing non-answer is following by something remarkable: a paean to open source software:
We understand that the concern about software patents stems, in part, from concerns that overly broad patents on software-based inventions may stifle the very innovative and creative open source software development community. As an Administration, we recognize the tremendous value of open source innovation and rely on it to accomplish key missions. For example, the U.S. Open Government National Action Plan recently announced that the source code for We the People and Data.gov would be open sourced for the entire world. Federal agencies are likewise spurring innovation through open source energy. For example, the Department of Defense issued clarifying guidance on the use of open software at the Department. And, the Department of Health and Human Services has become a leader in standards-based, open sourced policy to power innovations in health care quality and enable research into efficient care delivery. The tremendous growth of the open source and open data communities over the years, for delivery of both commercial and non-commercial services, shows that innovation can flourish in both the proprietary and open source software environments.
What's interesting here is that open source was nowhere mentioned in the original petition. So it shows a commendable savviness on the part of the person who actually wrote the reply – Quentin Palfrey, Senior Advisor to CTO for Jobs and Competitiveness at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy – that much of the concern about software patents is the deletorious effect they have on free software.
So even if the e-petition failed to get President Obama to agree to abolish software patents (admittedly a bit of a long shot), it did have the beneficial effect of eliciting this strong vote in favour of open source from a very high-profile site.