Did your proprietor pay the patent bill?

Bizjournals.com reports that

Alcatel-Lucent told a jury it is owed almost $2 billion for Microsoft Corp.’s use of the standard technology for playing music and audio files on a computer…If Paris-based Alcatel-Lucent wins, the way could be cleared for legal actions against the many other companies that rely on MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3 technology, commonly called MP3.

To me, the important thing here isn’t whether Alcatel-Lucent wins or loses, it’s primarily that software patents exist, and as a more minor procedural matter that patent license fees can go unpaid without users knowing anything about the lack of payment until it’s too late. If you use Microsoft Windows (any version since Microsoft Windows 95), MacOS X, or most portable digital audio players, you have an MP3 player, perhaps also an MP3 encoder. MP3, unlike Ogg Vorbis which””functionally””does the same thing, is patent-encumbered. Had distributors focused on Ogg Vorbis, millions of users wouldn’t be in the situation they’re in right now, not knowing whether the proper patent fees have been paid.

As we know from Paul Heckel’s patent threat against Apple, patent holders can come after users too””you don’t need to distribute anything to infringe upon a patent. In the 1990’s, Heckel had a patent which does something so obscurely described in his patent application I can’t summarize it for you here. His lawyers told him that Apple’s Hypercard program was doing something that infringed upon his patent. So Heckel went to Apple and said as much. Apple wasn’t very impressed with this, so Heckel threatened Apple’s users. On page 109 of Richard Stallman’s book of collected essays (“Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman“) you’ll find a quote from his talk about software patents:

For instance, Paul Heckel””when Apple wasn’t very scared of his threats””threatened to start suing Apple’s customers. Apple found that very scary. They figured they couldn’t afford to have their customers being sued like that, even if they would ultimately win. So the users can get sued too, either as a way of attacking a developer or just as a way to squeeze money out of them on their own or to cause mayhem. All software developers and users are vulnerable.

Perhaps this case will serve as enough of a wake-up call to get people to at least look into using Ogg Vorbis instead of MP3.