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Feature: Video

Software patents underlie a novel open source business model (video)

By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller on March 29, 2008 (4:09:15 AM)

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"Software patents are evil." Ask almost any free or open source software advocate, and they'll tell you that software patents kill creativity and keep computer science from advancing as rapidly as it would if everyone shared their basic work with everyone else, unencumbered by patents or other restrictions. But computer science professor Fred Popowich of Simon Fraser University says this is not necessarily true. So does attorney Larry Rosen, who spent many years as legal counsel for the Open Source Initiative starting (literally) before it had a name.

How could these two august gentlemen possibly believe that software patents can be the basis of a new method of developing and distributing open source software? Instead of trying to summarize their new business model, we sat down with them, turned on our video camera, and gave them a chance to tell you what they're up to, themselves, in their own words.

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Their company is called International Characters. It already has one software patent pending -- and professor Popowich assures us that the company has software that's ready to download and use today; that this isn't a pipe dream but a "right now" thing.

If nothing else, even if you disagree with the way International Characters is doing business, you've got to admit that they've come up with an interesting way to combine software patents with open source. Whether it will work -- and whether others follow in their footsteps -- is another matter. We'll just have to keep an eye on them and see how things go, won't we?

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on Software patents underlie a novel open source business model (video)

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Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on March 29, 2008 05:38 PM
Thanks for the video, it is of very high quality. :)

The video is a little over 9 minutes, and basically it comes down to that their patents are "Free for open source, everyone else pays."


Software patents underlie a novel open source business model (video)

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on March 29, 2008 07:14 PM
Well obviously this isn't "a new method of developing and distributing open source software", based on patents. That would be absurd. They're just doing a sensible and decent thing with their own patent in a software patent polluted environment. Red Hat has software patents. Sun has software patents. IBM and Nokia have software patents (and have pledged at least a subset of them for free use in FOSS).

The closing comments on disclosure were redundant too. Of course it's better for them if they can build up a patent portfolio for defensive use and for generating licensing revenue from others but if they just wanted to disclose and share their inventions, then publication on their website, in a journal and/or here is a far better way of doing so than patenting ever can be.


Software patents underlie a novel open source business model (video)

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on March 30, 2008 12:24 AM
...and I'm glad to see that they don't actually claim that software patents are not evil and perhaps are necessary for or good for the "promotion of progress..." on their website. That would be very foolish:


Software patents underlie a novel open source business model (video)

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on March 30, 2008 10:30 AM
Ideas will "get out there" more quickly and help society if they aren't encumbered by patents. The best thing that can happen to an idea is that no artificial monopolies are imposed on it, so it can be spread around with zero restrictions. The only reason the GPL is good is because copyrights exist, and in the same light the only reason this idea may be good is if it applies the same reverse-thinking that the GPL does for copyright law but applies them to patents, and if this is the case, if I understood this video correctly, the only reason this is good is also merely because of the existence of patent laws.

Get rid of software (and all, IMO) patents, and you solve this problem. It's a war that no one should have to fight. Lawyers already make enough money.


Re: Software patents underlie a novel open source business model (video)

Posted by: bilbophile on March 30, 2008 11:36 AM
The interview is too long and does not highlight very clearly the main issues. Basically, that company has come up with an equivalent of the copyright dual licensing for patents. Developers who only want to develop patent-free copyleft software can do it for free, while at the same time for-profits cannot improve their bottom line by using other people's intellectual work without due compensation.

However, one of the reasons such dual arrangments have not been put in place before is that unlike copyrights patents cost money, sometimes quite a lot of money, and anyway software patents are not (yet?) enforceable in some jurisdictions, most notably the EU. Thus patents have tended to be limited to closed source projects. Still, if this works well for their patented technology, the way dual licensing has been working for MySQL or Star/OpenOffice, more power to them!

Another relevant issue is that if a Redmond-based or a big blue company wishes to share its IT development work with the community of its eco-system, but at the same time they want to prevent their comeptiton from taking undue advantage of their work, it now has a model to work on. There is no longer a reasonable scope for bilateral patent covenants between such companies and open-source developers/distributors.

This is all that the interview is about. The two guests could have explained it much more briefly and poignantly by the two guests, should they have been asked the right questions.

[Modified by: bilbophile on March 30, 2008 12:39 PM]

[Modified by: bilbophile on March 30, 2008 12:44 PM]


Re(1): Software patents underlie a novel open source business model (video)

Posted by: bilbophile on March 30, 2008 11:41 AM

Patents and copyrights were invented precisely to get the results of intellectual work "out there" rather than having them hidden by trade secrets or lost by the lack of a reward fo the author. The system established an economic value for intellectual artefacts by enforcing artificial temporary scarcity, but - at least originally - in return of these artefacts becoming immediately available to the public and eventually entering the public domain.

Unfortunately, the market thus created has been an artificial one and as such one open to political abuse. Given that the IP owners' interests are concentrated while the public ones are dispersed, we have arrived at a system which instead of opening up creation, it often stiffles it. Moreover, since the realm of science was excluded from patenting for good reason, so should have been the mathematical formulas making up the software. However, until a replacement for IP rights more beneficial than the trade secret and providing a more satisfactory income model for the authors comes up, the only way forward is to patch the system.

While strictly software patents should be abolished worldwide, this "dual patenting" is a step in the right direction and living proof that the work of inventors can be recognised and rewarded without stiffling further innovation. Actually, if the priciples of such a covenant and those of e.g. the LGPL would become mandatory provisions of the IP law a lot of the incentives to hijack the IP system would disappear and this might ultimately trigger some other beneficial changes as well.
[Modified by: bilbophile on March 30, 2008 12:42 PM]


Software patents underlie a novel open source business model (video)

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on March 30, 2008 11:37 AM
It sounds like a good idea.

In addition, why don't the FSF apply for software patents? They could charge 0 price if the patented ideas are used in a free software licence, and make proprietary software-making companies pay for licences. Is it because they don't like the principles behind software patents?


One reason of many why the FSF are against software patents

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on March 31, 2008 12:33 PM
"Is it because they don't like the principles behind software patents?"

Yes. Indeed, the FSF and many others regard copyright as sufficient to protect the original work. It's very easy to avoid infringing someone else's copyright: you just don't copy their work into your own without observing the terms and conditions of that work. So you should know whether you're infringing or not by just paying attention to what you're doing. Meanwhile, with patents, you can write a work all by yourself and still be taken to court over patent infringement because some patent holder claims a monopoly on some idea, process or algorithm, and although you may have rediscovered such things all by yourself, they will nevertheless accuse you of "stealing their intellectual property". In other words, with patents you can never really know if you are infringing because even if you've read through the mountains of dubious patent claims, it's still possible for someone to hold their patent up against your work and decide that it's time for a day in court.

Software patents are yet another tool used by organisations who feel like exempting themselves from the normal, predictable rules of software licensing. Don't feel like complying with a Free Software licence? Why not assert some patents? Software patents are not "intellectual property" - they are "intellectual robbery"!


Software patents underlie a novel open source business model (video)

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on March 30, 2008 03:34 PM
Patent the idea of a mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door...

Of course in this scenario the quality of your mouse trap (or even an actual mousetrap) is irrelevant. No problem seeing why some people want to patent ideas. What is more problematic is proving that patented ideas improve our lot in life. I doubt that ideas become more ubiquitous when they are patented than when they are not so all that is being done is extracting money for something we would have any way. Next step, patents on breathing air.


Why I skipped this article...

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on March 31, 2008 05:57 PM
Having to watch a video, and absorb information at its pace rather than my own, is not the best use of my time. Apparently, you feel that "trying to summarize their new business model" is not the best use or yours.


Richard M. Stallman response.

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on April 02, 2008 09:42 PM
Even though Rosen and Popowich do not intend to sue free software
developers for patent infringement, their plans nonetheless put us in

Software patents are the greatest danger to free software developers
and users -- and we are too few to win their abolition alone. But we
are not in this danger alone. Software patents also threaten the
developers and users of proprietary software, and the developers and
users of custom software. Everyone involved with software is in the
same boat with us, and we need to ask them to join with us to oppose
software patents.

That is why all the campaigns to prevent or abolish software patents
-- from the League for Programming Freedom to FFII to End Software
Patents -- try to make common cause for all software developers on
this crucial issue. With our combined strength, we sometimes win.

Rosen and Popowich's "business model" would undermine this common
cause against patents. That is shortsighted and dangerous. If we are
to argue convincingly against the "Reasonable And Non-Discriminatory"
patent licenses, that discriminate unreasonably against free software,
our own actions must not legitimize the practice of using patents to
demand money from software developers and users.

Rosen and Popowich are in the same boat with the rest of us. But
instead of helping everyone escape, they plan to cut spears from the
wood of the hull to threaten some of the other passengers. This is
dangerous for everyone in the boat.

We need to pull together if we want to get out of this. So don't use
any "business model" based on software patents. Support the End Software
Patents campaign (

Posted on behalf of Richard M. Stallman (
Joshua Gay, campaigns manager
Free Software Foundation


Software patents underlie a novel open source business model (video)

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on April 04, 2008 08:22 AM
"Free to open source community and others pay" ... that's interesting!


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