British citizens: Please help fight software patents

If you’re British, please sign this UK government petition to tell the Prime Minister to make software patents clearly unenforcible before 20 February. If this petition helps you stay clear of the madness Americans have (most likely unknowingly) brought upon themselves, it’s a good thing.

Software patents are government-issued monopolies on ideas used in software development. Software patents hurt software developers in all but the largest patent holding firms (IBM holds the most patents right now) because software patents prevent us from distributing software that implements a number of popular algorithms including MP3 and (at one time) compressed GIF image files which are widely used on the World Wide Web. In order to properly implement support for MP3 you need a program which uses certain ideas that are patented. Without a license, those ideas are off-limits to many software developers—developers in countries which have software patents.

Alternatives which aren’t patent-encumbered, such as Ogg Vorbis (a functional substitute for MP3) and PNG (a functional substitute for GIF), are hard to popularize despite being technically superior. The software most people use most often don’t support these unencumbered formats well if at all.

The chief benefactors of software patents are multinational corporations which are, not coincidentally, the largest patent holders.

If England rejects software patents, British citizens will be safe from losing software patent infringement lawsuits. Anyone can get American patents, so the British citizens and corporations could get American patents and sue Americans for patent infringement. By working to stop software patents, you can help to save yourself.

I’ve mirrored a talk by Richard Stallman about the dangers of software patents (video, audio). Verbatim copying and distribution of the entire speech recording are permitted provided this notice is preserved.

Quoting the petition:

Software patents are used by convicted monopolists to threaten customers who consider using rival software. As a result, patents stifle innovation.

Patents are supposed to increase the rate of innovation by publicising how inventions work. Reading a software patent gives no useful information for creating or improving software. All patents are writen in a sufficiently cryptic language to prevent them from being of any use. Once decoded, the patents turn out to be for something so obvious that programmers find them laughable.

It is not funny because the cost of defending against nuicance lawsuites is huge.

The UK patent office grants software patents against the letter and the spirit of the law. They do this by pretending that there is a difference between software and ‘computer implemented inventions’.

Some companies waste money on ‘defensive patents’. These have no value against pure litigation companies and do not counter threats made directly to customers.