12 January 2006

Closing off Microsoft's Patent Options

Patents are boring - but important. They are the chokepoint for much intellectual activity - especially the kind discussed in these pages - so anything that can be done to loosen their grip on the free interchange of ideas is welcome.

Against this background, the announcement by the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) that it has "created a partnership with the open source community to ensure that patent examiners have access to all available prior art relating to software code during the patent examination process" is an encouraging step, since software patents are some of the most problematic of all (see Richard Stallman's brilliant explanation of why). However, this is a statement of intent, rather than a concrete move, and it remains to be seen what practical effect it will have on stemming the flood of trivial or downright bad patents being granted by the USPTO.

Meanwhile, the USPTO has upheld Microsoft's patent on the File Allocation Table (FAT) storage technology. This is bad news: it represents both a direct defeat for the open source world, which sought to overturn it, and a sword of Damocles that henceforth will hang over the entire free software movement. The danger is that Microsoft will demand royalties - maybe even "reasonable and non-discriminatory" ones - that will be impossible for free software projects that use the FAT technology to pay.

Update: On the other hand, maybe it's not over yet...(who said patents were boring?)

Update 2: For a view on the USPTO initiative from inside one of the companies helping to make it happen - IBM - see this excellent post by Irving Wladawsky-Berger. Anyone who's read my Rebel Code will know that he was the man who essentially turned Big Blue onto GNU/Linux. This means that he is someone with his finger on the pulse, and that his blog is well worth following.

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