Google exec warns against ‘limiting’ overseas-style patents

New Zealand should not allow itself to be lured into adopting a US-style software patent system, says DiBona

Google’s Chris DiBona believes local developers would be unwise to adopt an overseas-style patent system.

Google’s open-source programme manager, DiBona, was visiting New Zealand last week to speak to government officials and to address a seminar arranged by Wellington’s business incubator Creative HQ. DiBona is also the father of Google’s Summer of Code programme, which provides rising young software developers with work experience. CreativeHQ runs its own slightly different Summer of Code programme, aimed chiefly at assisting start-ups.

DiBona says New Zealand should not allow itself to be lured into adopting a US-style software patent system as this would be “much too broad”.

“I can see a smaller country like New Zealand could get ridden roughshod over [in such an environment].”

Such a system could be limiting, with developers finding it hard to innovate without being accused of violating patents. And defending yourself against patent suits can be very expensive, he cautions.

DiBona says he is not altogether against software patents, especially when they involve genuine innovations. Their inventors deserve a reasonable period of protection, says DiBona. But patents can be used obstructively, handicapping innovation and undermining the ideals embodied in the open source movement.

“You could say I was completely opposed to software patents until I spoke to Whitfield Diffie [co-discoverer of the public-key cryptography theory]. He convinced me that the RSA patent [by the three researchers who developed the theory into a practical algorithm] was a true innovation.

“But these days, developers just pick up patents because they can. They say they have to have them for defence.”

It can be difficult to sort out whether patent protection is being used defensively, to protect genuine innovation, or offensively, which means it’s more likely to obstruct the natural process of successive innovations building on their predecessors, says DiBona.

DiBona says some branches of US industry are moving away from patents, finding them not worth the trouble.

DiBona also expressed reservations about the latest open-source General Public Licence (GPL version 3,) which, in section seven, allows a developer to impose additional conditions on downstream use of code and require that these conditions be quoted in the source code.

By imposing such conditions, as an acknowledgement of the code’s original source, along with quotation of trademarks, the originator may place unwarranted control on downstream developers, says DiBona.

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