Patents, Patents, Everywhere...


...nor any stop to think.

Software patents are an issue that crops up fairly often on this blog, since they represent one of the principal threats to free software. But recently something seems to have got into the water, for the entire world, apparently, has gone software patent mad.

First we had Apple taking a swing at HTC, one of the main manufacturers of Android smartphones:

Apple today filed a lawsuit against HTC for infringing on 20 Apple patents related to the iPhone’s user interface, underlying architecture and hardware.

It trotted out the usual nonsense:

“We can sit by and watch competitors steal our patented inventions, or we can do something about it. We’ve decided to do something about it,” said Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO. “We think competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours.”

In fact, that's part of the problem with software patents: companies very often *do* create their own technology independently, but that's no defence against a previously-filed patent. It allows the outfit that bangs in the first patent to monopolise it – literally – for a couple of decades, even though many others may have been working on the same idea and come up with similar solutions on their own.

Then, just to make things more interesing, poor old HTC was accused by Microsoft of infringing on its patents – except in this case, HTC decided to settle, so we don't know exactly what those patents were. Here's what Microsoft said:

Microsoft Corp. and HTC Corp. have signed a patent agreement that provides broad coverage under Microsoft’s patent portfolio for HTC’s mobile phones running the Android mobile platform. Under the terms of the agreement, Microsoft will receive royalties from HTC.

Notice that it specifies “mobile phones running the Android mobile platform”, which seems an indirect way of implying that HTC has paid for “problems” with Linux, on which Android is based. Thus, a little more FUD can be spread about Linux's supposed infringement on Microsoft's monopolies, without actually making any real claim that needs supporting by facts.

Like Apple, Microsoft trots out the usual cant about patents:

The licensing agreement is another example of the important role intellectual property (IP) plays in ensuring a healthy and vibrant IT ecosystem.

As the growing number of hugely expensive patent lawsuits demonstrates, this could hardly be further from the truth. Instead, software patents represent a huge tax on players in this sector – and that's just the way the big companies like it, since it represents a barrier to new entrants - and is problematic for free software.

That danger moved a little closer recently – assuming that the following email sent to the FSF's Roy Hugo really is from Steve Jobs:

All video codecs are covered by patents. A patent pool is being assembled to go after Theora and other "open source" codecs now. Unfortunately, just because something is open source, it doesn't mean or guarantee that it doesn't infringe on others patents. An open standard is different from being royalty free or open source.

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