It’s nice to see software patents getting mainstream criticism. You as a computer user, regardless of what you do with the computer, are adversely affected by software patents—patents on algorithms used in computer software. The op-ed rightly points out the solution: end software patents. We don’t need them and they chiefly serve to give control over computer software to the largest patent holders (invariably a few multinational corporations such as IBM).
A relatively minor issue I have with the op-ed is objecting to software patents on the basis of “innovation”. I find the “innovation” argument not entirely convincing because I think it gives way to debating how many should be allowed to innovate rather than framing the issue around ensuring everyone has the freedom to make their computer do as they wish. Once we frame the debate on the basis of “innovation” our software freedom can be marginalized away. I would not like to give ground to any argument that says if 50% more corporations or wealthy individuals had permission to express themselves freely on the computer, that would be “enough innovation” and we could get on with making minor tweaks to the patent system to make this happen. The patent system is fundamentally broken when it comes to computer software because it directly interferes with people making their computers do what they want. The call for increased innovation doesn’t strongly enough emphasize that you deserve freedom to make your computer do as you wish.
Do software patents hurt me?
Alcatel-Lucent just sued Microsoft for billions claiming it has patents that have something to do with MP3 software. If Alcatel-Lucent wins and if their patents are broad enough to cover any possible MP3 implementation, Alcatel-Lucent could go on to sue other users of MP3. The main benefit to widespread MP3-related patent infringement lawsuits would be to wake people up to the dangers of software patents.
This means Alcatel-Lucent has a patent gun they can point at any MP3 user in the US (and any country foolish enough to follow the US’ lead in support of software patents) just like Fraunhofer, a German company with patents covering aspects of MP3. Just because you paid for your software doesn’t mean you paid all the right patent holders. Contrary to CNet’s take on this issue, Paul Heckel’s threat to sue Apple’s users for patent infringement was effective at getting Apple to pay for licensing Heckel’s patents. Consider the environment software patents create: A patent holder’s power is unjustifiably large (essentially choosing which software gets to be used, which people/organizations get to work with particular ideas). We should not have a system where only the largest and wealthiest corporations can write and distribute software. Clearly the right approach is to work to end software patents entirely.
What can I use instead of MP3?
This patent problem is why Ogg Vorbis exists: Ogg Vorbis is a royalty-free functional substitute for MP3. Ogg Vorbis reproduces audio better than MP3 (according to every blind listening test result I’ve seen) and has no known patent encumbrance. Ogg Vorbis lets you do as you like. Read more about why Ogg Vorbis is an important part of free media.
More on the problem of software patents
For a more thorough analysis of the problems of software patents, I highly recommend Richard Stallman’s talk “Software Patents – Obstacles to Software Development” (audio, transcript) and how software patents are very much unlike copyright law and the two shouldn’t be confused. This essay also shows how software patents build multiple roads to censorship—similar-sounding patents are all individually enforcible, thus allowing multiple patent holders to win patent infringement suits. In the US at least two organizations (IBM and Unisys) once held patents covering the same compression algorithm (LZW).