Software Patents and the Threat They Pose

The controversial issue of software patents reared its ugly head again last week when Bruce Perens cited them as one of the greatest threats to free and open-source software. In a blog post last week to celebrate the 10th anniversary of open source, Perens (the creator of the Open Source Definition and co-founder of the Open Source Initiative) cited what he believed were the most remarkable achievents and threats during the first decade of open source, and software patents--which he described as "evil"--were high on the list.

He also took aim at the Linux Foundation and its "patent quality initiatives" with the U.S. Patent Office, which, he says, "unfortunately may in the end only serve to strengthen the patents to which they are applied."

Perens notes that the steering board of the Linux Foundation, which came into being when the Open Source Development Labs and the Free Standards Group merged last January, is composed "of the very largest of corporations, who in general stand to profit from the present system while the rest of the business world loses."

While acknowledging the excellent work done by the Foundation for the open-source community in many areas, Perens feels that "they would have a severe conflict with their large-corporate membership if the radical reform necessary to solve the software patent problem was to enter their agenda."

But the Foundation's Zemlin disagrees with that assessment, telling me that he considers Perens as both a friend and respected colleague. "While we don't agree on every issue, we probably agree on most."

But, that said, "we can't snap our fingers and make patents disappear, but we can help make them harder to get when they don't meet legal tests," he said, arguing that it was important for the Linux Foundation and the software industry to work both within the existing system and to push for significant reform of the patent system, especially when it comes to software.

"We have a solid track record of publicly calling for significant reform of this system. We want the system to change and are working multiple angles to affect that change," he said.