Likewise, as my colleague Matt Cooney points out (Many hands make fight work), having an army of clued-up, self-motivated volunteers to find things out -- like plotting the defence for open source software -- is a fabulous resource.
Last week 600 websites were set to take part in a kind of “sit-in” (site-in, perhaps?) – removing their front pages – in protest at a European Commission meeting this week that will consider allowing software ideas and business methods to be patented. A simultaneous physical protest in Brussels would keep things real, possibly to be joined by a group of political mime artists, which might make it less so. When the idea was first considered earlier this year a petition signed by a group of top scientists decried the increasing acceptance of patents for algorithms and software ideas, saying it breached the spirit of the European Patent Convention.
Supporters of the plan say it will unify varying approaches to patents across member countries and give software inventors greater certainty. Opponents say it could crush small developers with expensive licensing schemes.
Software patents are different and wrong for several reasons, open source guru Richard Stallman has argued: because they contain lots of mathematical ideas operating in combination, designing most other products is far easier, and unlike physical products software can be made much larger and more complex by just a few people. This means it could contain many ideas that could be patented already, he says.
The online protest, organised by the Foundation for aFree Information Infrastructure and EuroLinux, has been joined by Linux software outfit KDE and others. FFII suggests patent law is too broad and clumsy for software, which are “advances in abstraction”.
“Unlike copyright, patents can block independent creations. Software patents can render software copyright useless. One copyrighted work can be covered by hundreds of patents of which the author doesn't even know but for whose infringement he and his users can be sued. Some of these patents may be impossible to work around, because they are broad or because they are part of communication standards.”
The FFII argues that the European Patent Office and “its community of industrial patent lawyers” have been dominating patent policy and pushing through further liberalisation in the face of widespread opposition.
Controversial enough, but even more scary is the possibility that the world’s intellectual property bodies could be made to actively deny the very idea of open source licences.
TheWashington Post reports that WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organisation, was considering a meeting on the place of the open source movement in the IP landscape, after it was proposed by a group of technologists, economists and academics. The Post reports that Microsoft, in particular, furiously lobbied US officials to squelch the meeting. The open source meeting is now off WIPO’s agenda.
The lobbyists might not have needed to bother. Lois Boland from the US Patent and Trademark Office reportedly said that open source software runs counter to the mission of WIPO, which is to promote intellectual property rights.Broatch is Computerworld's deputy editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.