Here is an interview with RMS. For the unintiated, RMS is Richard.M.Stallman, whom for most free software movement guys, is a kind of demi-god. While most the interview is bordering close to the mundane and other stuff, these lines make some real sense !!
A novel and a modern complex programme have certain points in common: each is large and implements many ideas. Suppose patent law had been applied to novels in the 1800s; suppose states such as France had permitted the patenting of literary ideas. How would this have affected Hugo's writing? How would the effects of literary patents compare with the effects of literary copyright?
Consider the novel Les Misérables, written by Hugo. Because he wrote it, the copyright belonged only to him. He did not have to fear that some stranger could sue him for copyright infringement and win. That was impossible, because copyright covers only the details of a work of authorship, and only restricts copying. Hugo had not copied Les Misérables, so he was not in danger.
Patents work differently. They cover ideas - each patent is a monopoly on practising some idea, which is described in the patent itself.
Here's one example of a hypothetical literary patent:
Claim 1: a communication process that represents, in the mind of a reader, the concept of a character who has been in jail for a long time and becomes bitter towards society and humankind.
Claim 2: a communication process according to claim 1, wherein said character subsequently finds moral redemption through the kindness of another.
Claim 3: a communication process according to claims 1 and 2, wherein said character changes his name during the story.
If such a patent had existed in 1862 when Les Misérables was published, the novel would have infringed all three claims - all these things happened to Jean Valjean in the novel. Hugo could have been sued, and would have lost. The novel could have been prohibited - in effect, censored - by the patent holder.
Now consider this hypothetical literary patent:
Claim 1: a communication process that represents in the mind of a reader the concept of a character who has been in jail for a long time and subsequently changes his name.
Les Misérables would have infringed that patent too, because this description too fits the life story of Jean Valjean. And here's another hypothetical patent:
Claim 1: a communication process that represents in the mind of a reader the concept of a character who finds moral redemption and then changes his name.
Jean Valjean would have infringed this patent too.
These three patents would all cover the story of one character in a novel. They overlap, but they do not precisely duplicate each other, so they could all be valid simultaneously; all three patent holders could have sued Victor Hugo. Any one of them could have prohibited publication of Les Misérables.
Other aspects of Les Misérables could also have run afoul of patents. For instance, there could have been a patent on a fictionalized portrayal of the Battle of Waterloo, or a patent on using Parisian slang in fiction. Two more lawsuits. In fact, there is no limit to the number of different patents that might have been applicable for suing the author of a work such as Les Misérables. All the patent holders would say they deserved a reward for the literary progress that their patented ideas represent, but these obstacles would not promote progress in literature, they would only obstruct it.
This analogy can help non-programmers see what software patents do. Software patents cover features, such as defining abbreviations in a word processor, or natural order recalculation in a spreadsheet. Patents cover algorithms that programs need to use. Patents cover aspects of file formats, such as Microsoft's new formats for Word files. MPEG 2 video format is covered by 39 different US patents.
Just as one novel could infringe many different literary patents at once, one program can infringe many different patents at once. It is so much work to identify all the patents infringed by a large program that only one such study has been done. A 2004 study of Linux, the kernel of the GNU/Linux operating system, found it infringed 283 different US software patents. That is to say, each of these 283 different patents covers some computational process found somewhere in the thousands of pages of source code of Linux.
That's why software patents act like landmines for software developers. And for software users, since the users can be sued too.
On a more personal note, one cannot help but agreeing to his viewpoint !
Posted by Shyam Krishnaswamy at 11:42 AM