During the presidential debates last year, late-night comedians got a lot of mileage out of President Bushs many references to another country involved in the coalition in Iraq: Poland. Polands military contributions may or may not be funny, but the country has become one of my heroes—although not for anything its done in Iraq.
No, the reason I want to cheer and thank Poland is because of its efforts in the war against software patents.
For the past few years, there has been a concerted effort in the industry to put U.S.-style software patents in place in the European Union. These efforts met several legislative defeats early, which was only logical: I cant see how any European executive, software vendor or legislator would look at U.S. software patents and think, "Hey, that system is working great! Lets do the same thing here!"
However, the forces behind the push for European patents include some of the biggest software vendors in the United States, which are clearly operating under the theory of, "If I have to work with a dumb system, then everyone has to work with a dumb system." After some early defeats, these forces leveraged their supporters in the European government to attempt to get software patents passed through backdoor committee and bureaucratic methods.
When these runarounds were attempted, it was often Poland that stood in the way and said "no thanks" to software patents. (Clearly, Poland didnt see the benefit of having small European developers crushed under a wave of questionable patents from U.S. companies.)
Poland delayed the process enough that software patent opponents could lobby their representatives to vote against software patents. This finally culminated in an early February decision by the Legal Affairs Committee of the European Parliament to essentially scrap the current software patents directive and start from scratch.
This doesnt mean that software patents are dead in Europe—the pro-patent groups will re-marshal their forces. But it could be years before they get as close to success as they were.
All of us in the software community should take advantage of this window of opportunity, however small, to figure a way out of this software patent morass.
I mean, outside of those questionable companies whose only profits come from their patent portfolios, have software companies really benefited from software patents? I think very few on the software and development side of these companies would say yes.
Whenever I write an anti-patent column, someone inevitably responds that patents are there to help the little guys innovate. But, honestly, Little Developer, do you think your one or two patents would help you if you had to go toe-to-toe with the likes of IBM, Microsoft or Oracle? Do you want to bet that they dont have a patent in their massive arsenal that they could use against you?
Personally, I would like to just see software patents go away. Remember, software patents were very rare before the United States Patent and Trademark Office liberalized the rules for software in 1996.
Im not sure how the pre- and post-patent dollar amounts compare, but it sure felt more prosperous and innovative when there were no software patents around to muddy the development waters. New types of software were regularly created, lots of money was made and intellectual property was effectively protected using standard copyright laws.
I know that my desire to do away with software patents is most likely a pipe dream, but it is clearly the fastest way to implement the level playing field that many companies seem to want.
However, I do hope that U.S. politicians will take a look at whats happening in Europe and see enough incentive to take concrete steps toward fixing some of the worst patent abuses and problems—steps such as getting rid of business process patents (goodbye, one-click) or requiring actual working programs rather than broad ideas to patent.
I wont hold my breath, but Im a lot more hopeful than I was a few months ago. And now, in honor of my hero, Im off to have a few pirogies and a bottle of Zywiec beer.
Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.