Say No to Software Patents

While I am by far the one of the least able to explain this topic to you if you don’t already understand it, you need to say no to software patents. Just in case you get lost, hang on until you get to the end and then just read the bullet points…

Why? Well, think of this way, it means that people will be able to patent software ideas and ensure that nobody else can implement them without paying a license fee to the patent holder. While in most spheres of human endeavour, this might seem reasonable, but the problem is this: only large companies can afford to register and maintain patents, which means that they can (and do!) patent everything they can think of in case somebody else comes up with the same idea and tries to market it, to make everybody else pay to use their version and to sue anybody else who has a competing product.

This means that you can only go to one company for your office programs, your web browser, your email program, your zip program, your PDF reader and so on. Well, in most cases that kind of thing won’t happen because all of these examples have what is known as prior art or are so widespread that the patent isn’t enforceable, but for the non-techies listening here, the point is valid even if the examples aren’t. Valid examples are things such as encryption algorithms, filesystems and file-sharing technologies or to put it bluntly, the complicated things that most people don’t understand about computers but need to do all of the things that they do on a daily basis.

What would you do if you had to pay extra to click on a link on a website? In 2002, BT (yes, good old British Telecom!) tried to sue 17 ISPs for the use of a patent it held on clickable links on a web page which, when clicked, take you to a new page, which are hyperlinks as most people know them, the main way the web is navigated these days. Thankfully that patent claim was thrown otherwise your Internet connection charges would be higher to pay for this ability to click on web page links.

What if you had to pay over £100 for a copy of Microsoft Office just so you could read the Word document your friend emailed to you? Well most of you are already doing that because you don’t realise you could use Open Office for free. But if a Microsoft patent claim were upheld regarding how those files worked, it would mean that you no longer have the choice to use something other than Microsoft Office to open your files. They’re YOUR files!

Or how about the fact that all of your lovely USB memory sticks or camera memory cards come with the FAT32 filesystem on them? A filesystem is a set of rules about how files are laid out on a disk and FAT32 is the standard filesystem for such file storage devices. Did you know that Microsoft had a patent claim upheld regarding the FAT filesystem, despite the claim being thrown out previously due to the fact that the filesystem had existed for some time prior to Microsoft’s patent filing. This now means that Microsoft can charge all manufacturers using the FAT filesystem on their devices, a charge which is in turn passed on to you, the consumer, even if you don’t want to use FAT. It stands a chance that Microsoft isn’t in fact charging for it, just holding it in the background as a legal deterrent to it’s competitors should they themselves claim that Microsoft is doing them wrong in some way, either way, you’re funding the legal battles or the license fees for the patented technology.

Did you know that the most popular digital music format in the world, MP3 is subject to patent and which ever MP3 player you use, be it an iPod or Windows Media Player, requires a royalty payment from the manufacturer (be it Microsoft or Apple in the examples given), which again is passed on to you.

If you don’t understand my rambling techno-bollocks, imagine if there was only one company in the world that was allowed to make Baked Beans, or bread, or toilet roll and everybody else who had to make bread or baked beans or toilet roll had to pay the patent holder first and so their bread, beans or bog roll are more expensive or perhaps inferior due to the license cost being added to the manufacturing cost. What if you like beans but didn’t like company X’s beans? Well, you wouldn’t know anyway because there wouldn’t be another brand of beans.

The main problems are that patents crush the little guy. We’ve all had ideas for inventions we think could make us money but the first hurdle is patenting it to protect it. You can’t afford the £1,000 or whatever it costs per year, but big companies can and that puts you out of the market straight away.

The second thing is that where there is only one supplier of an item and no competition, then you get a monopoly where the company can produce their product as shoddily as they like, charge as much as they like and innovation is stifled. This is already evident in the software market. Everybody uses Windows because everybody uses Microsoft Office. Windows is a leaky piece of shit. I don’t use Windows for these reasons. I don’t use MP3 either, or Microsoft Office.

Internet Explorer is what happens when you have a software monopoly. Get a lot of viruses? PC running slow and you don’t know why? It’s because Internet Explorer gets shot to pieces every day on the Internet. Most spam is generated by virus infected PCs and many of these viruses get onto your PC through Internet Explorer. 98% of all emails are spam. That’s billions daily. Because for years there was no competition to make Microsoft try harder. Until Mozilla Firefox of course, which I implore you, for the safety of your computer to download, install and use as your default web browser.

Get viruses via email? Well maybe not so many now, but it was the dominant way of viruses passing themselves around for a good few years because Internet Explorer’s sister program, Outlook Express was shit at dealing with dodgy emails and opened everything by default. That’s what happens when there is no competition. Until of course Mozilla Thunderbird came along, which I implore you to install as your email program for the good of mankind (email is still a risk, but not like it once was and Outlook Express behaves a little better these days, but still do it for the moral value of turning your back on monopolistic software companies that want to stop you thinking you have a choice, rather than blindly accepting everything that is placed in front of you like readers of tabloid newspapers do).

The main proponent of software patents is Microsoft, who have been convicted of anti-competitive practices in the EU and in several other countries. They are fighting anti-competition battles in courts all over the world including the US, EU, South Korea and so on. A software patents bill has already been defeated in the EU parliament last year after being being brought back from the dead several times due to insistent pressure by defenders of the patent system (aka Microsoft amongst others).
If you value you the freedom you have to do what you want with your own files then please go sign the petition to the British Prime Minister. This is not some noddy computer hippy website, it is a site set up by the Prime Minister’s Office to solicit petitions from the public on issues they believe in. It is already gaining press attention.You can sign the petition at

Oh and if you care about the freedom to do what you want with your own files, you should be very afraid of DRM (Digital Rights Management) which is in Windows Vista, recent versions of Microsoft Office, Apple iPods, the iTunes music store and is being built on to the motherboard of modern PCs. It allows companies (Microsoft, Apple etc) and the Motion Picture Association of America amongst others to provide restrictions on what you can do with your files, your DVDs, the music you paid for and downloaded from iTunes and your Microsoft Office documents. The DRM included in Microsoft Office is capable of refusing to open documents created in it unless you have a copy of Microsoft Office, which again rules out any choice to use any other office software other than Microsoft’s. Which means you would be shit outta luck sending me Word documents. Although it is possible, it hasn’t been done yet thankfully, but there are many other restrictions in Microsoft Office there that are more real. Have you tried to play the music you downloaded through iTunes on any other portable media player yet? You can’t.

Read more on DRM here and here.

The concept I am asking you to petition on, is not that plagiarism should be considered acceptable, but that the ability to take an existing idea and then take it a step further, to improve it, or to take it in another direction should be allowed. That is how the Internet developed. One person had an idea, then another person thought, “It would be great if it could do this…” and then somebody else added something else. It was evolutionary. No one organisation could naturally have had all of those ideas themselves. It is a feat of collective thinking. Also, having an idea separately from somebody else should not preclude you from acting upon it.

Computer software is not a patentable idea. It is at it’s most basic, algebra. Instructions to perform lots of calculations sequentially. You can’t patent maths because it is an indisputable idea that 1 + 1 = 2 and always will be to every person. No one person can claim that concept because it has always existed.

What this petition is asking for is for software patents to be made unenforceable in the UK.

Just in case you got lost:

  • Patents reduce competition, degrade product quality, increase prices and tie you to the apron of a single supplier which doesn’t have to try hard for your money.

Or, more succinctly:

  • Patents bad, freedom good.

Anyway, please sign the petition. And download Firefox, Thunderbird and Open Office.

One thought on “Say No to Software Patents

  1. Nice post. I was considering doing something along those lines myself with specific reference to the public sector. There are some inspiring stories coming from the continent, sadly I don’t know a single government department or council here that’s gone down that line.

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