Twenty years or so ago the US Patent Office would not grant patents for software, they considered source code to be in the same category as other forms of writing—like books or technical manuals—but the US Courts ruled otherwise. As a result, we have what amounts to a high-stakes game of Monopoly going on.
For those of you who have not heard it already, I highly recommend When Patents Attack!, a radio documentary from This American Life. It goes in-depth into the ways in which software patents are used, and abused. The patents themselves, it turns out, have very little real value—the companies that hold them rarely actually make or sell any products based upon them—yet they are being bought and sold in batches like sub-prime loans for millions and billions of dollars at a time. The cost of these government-issued trading cards is being passed along to consumers.
Listen to the program. It’s worth it. I’ve been complaining about this sort of thing since the early 80′s. The report does a much better job of explaining what the problem is and how it hurts you (yes, you) than I have ever done.
This, to me, is an issue of freedom.
I write code. I have been writing software since the late 1970′s. I just write what needs to be written to solve whatever problem is in my way. These days, however, I have to watch over my shoulder. Whatever I may write, there’s a chance that someone has filed some obscure, bizarre, and over-reaching patent which, if there is money to be had or a start-up to be crushed, could be construed to cover whatever I may produce. It’s not that the claim even has to be rational. In fact, they don’t even have to tell me what patent I am violating. The only way find out is to spend hundreds, thousands, or even millions of dollars to go to court.
Coding, for me, is a form of expression. The risk of being sued just for writing software is an attack on my freedom of expression®. Imagine being afraid to say something—voice an opinion, tell a story, sing “Happy Birthday”—because someone else might claim ownership and sue you for everything you’ve got.
Hmmm… does that sound a bit paranoid? Listen to the report.