Why software patents are evil

Yahoo's action against Facebook reminds us why most open source developers hate software patents -- and what one community has done about them

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The second reason programmers never refer to software patents is that they're told never to do so. Patent law allows for triple damages if patent infringement is found to be willful. Looking at patents is as good a proof of willfulness as you can get. Every company I've ever visited has told its programmers to stay well clear of reading patents.

Anticompetitive usage
The effect of both of these is to invert the intent of the Copyright Clause of the U. S. Constitution, which allows the granting of copyrights and patents "to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts." Rather than promoting progress, software patents actually provide a way to inhibit progress by equipping companies with a powerful, unavoidable stealth weapon with which to frustrate their competitors and chill competitive innovation. Consider some examples:

Software patents are thus bad news for most innovators in the software industry. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has an excellent summary illustration of the problem.

I'm reminded of a case back in my days at Sun. Kodak was first an early investor in Sun, then a customer. But goodwill vaporized in 2004 when Kodak sued Sun for patent infringement. It wasn't just Sun. With its business starting to fail in the heat of competition from a digital camera market it had foreseen but failed to exploit, Kodak used a patent obtained from Wang to pursue every maker of object-oriented technology in the computer industry. Kodak forced out-of-court settlements in most cases (including, eventually, Sun), but the money did it no good.

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