The European Parliament is the only EU legislative body which has voted against software patents until now. It is therefore extremely important that you vote for a party or candidate which is against software patents, as the directive will return to the Parliament after the Council of Ministers has reached a common position.
You should know of a constant threat to the software industry and to people who write free software: Software patents. Perhaps you've heard of them. They may have directly what software you use.
Software patents give corporations monopolies, not just on software but on ideas. To me as a creative software developer this is very distressing. The entire software industry is based on using the ideas of others, and there's not been a single successful piece of software written that didn't borrow many ideas from other software. Further, even when a developer believes he has found a truly original idea--something I'll admit to myself--chances are he hasn't; there are millions of software developers in the world and I cannot believe that independent invention is a rare event. Why should we grant patent priveledges to companies that can afford to file a patent for every marginally innovative idea, when the same ideas, or very similar ones, are independently implemented by other individuals?
MilliKeys has a number of useful features, and I have no way of knowing whether it infringes on any patents. If it does, and if the company that holds the patent wanted to, it could shut down this web site and negate all the work I put into my software. It's happened before!
Have you ever saved a GIF image file? When the GIF standard was created, it was intended to be a free and open image format for the Internet. The creators didn't realize that the compression method they chose had a patent pending. After waiting seven years for the GIF format to become well entrenched on the internet, the patent holder Unisys suddenly announced that all programs using the GIF format were to pay thousands of dollars to Unisys. The people who had with their own hands created free GIF software were suddenly prohibited from distributing it under threat of lawsuit. Meanwhile, consumers could no longer get GIF writing software for free and were forced to turn to commercial software--the only software that could afford to support GIFs--or to piracy. As a direct result, enraged developers set out to create a new free image format called PNG.
A very similar thing happened with the MP3 format. Fraunhofer Institute, which developed the format, allowed free MP3-making software to flourish until the format became popular, at which point they decreed that all MP3-making software writers were to pay royalties to Fraunhofer, and they shut down a great many websites with the threat of litigation. Again, several developers had implemented their MP3 software themselves, from scratch, yet were denied the fruits of their labors. And so it is that consumers can't get free, legal MP3-writing software. Eventually, a free rival format called Ogg Vorbis was developed--a very high-quality format I strongly recommend.
Today it's impossible to develop an important computer standard without risking patent infringement. The developers of the open JPEG 2000 standard, for example, were unable to use some powerful compression technologies because they were patented. The DVD compression standard, MPEG-2, is an open standard on paper but, again, is covered by patents that prevent free programs from flourishing.
One of the fundamental tenets of patent law is that patents should only be granted for non-obvious inventions. On these grounds, the patents described above are mostly legitimate (but still detrimental to small companies, to free software and to consumers.) Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for patents on obvious ideas to be granted (see below), and once granted a patent generally cannot be struck down unless an accused infringer can afford an expensive and lengthy court battle (and even deep pockets don't guarantee anything.) Even ideas which are not obvious at one point in time may shortly become household ideas in the computer world, such as this patent on a combined color laser printer/scanner, dated 1993.
Other patents granted in Europe include:
The examples above are a subset of those found here.
I am also concerned with the accountability of the patent system, which based on this article seems sorely lacking.
Proponents of software patents claim that the monopoly power offered by patents encourages development of useful and original software by offering monetary rewards for good ideas. But in fact is that most of the money made by patents goes to corporations and not to the people in those corporations who developed the ideas. Furthermore, one does not even need to create software to obtain a software patent, because it is the ideas themselves that are patented. Out of the millions of software developers in the world, there are probably a mere handful who would decide against writing software simply because they couldn't patent it. Frankly, the world doesn't need these people anyway.
As PNG and Ogg Vorbis show, there are a great number of people willing to contribute to important open standards and programs without any guarantee of financial gain, let alone the monopoly power afforded by patents. On the other hand, the people who have paid royalties on software patents, directly or indirectly, probably number in the hundreds of millions (i.e., everyone who buys software). Patents hinder the creation of important open standards and generate far more lawyers than inventors.
It's unlikely that the United States, whose overworked patent office staff give out software patents disgustingly liberally, will restrict software patents any time soon. But the fight against them is still alive in Europe. Please see http://swpat.ffii.org/ to see how you can help in the battle. If nothing else, please offer a gesture of support by signing the petition at
Here are other articles you may find interesting:
Once you're finished, feel free to download MilliKeys, the free open-source customizable keyboard for your Palm Graffiti area.