Monday, July 11, 2011

Free Software

Many in the computer industry believe that software should be free.  This belief often surfaces when talk turns toward protecting newly developed Web apps with patents.  Indeed, a strong under-current exists resisting such software patents.  Yet, U.S. law is clear.  If a web (or other computer) application otherwise meets patentability requirements (e.g., it is new, useful, non-obvious, etc.) the computer application merits patent protection even if it implements a business method.  See In Re Bilski.

Yet the resistance to patenting software persists.  In many ways that attitude is understandable.  Speaking as a former programmer, I never wanted to re-create the wheel.  Let’s face it.  Coding and debugging can be tedious and frustrating.  Why go through all of that effort when someone else developed a suitable application?  For another thing, don’t we want to direct new efforts toward creating new and better services?

Therefore, those who advocate for free software, unfettered by patents, suggest that software developers should be free to give away their creations.  IP (intellectual property) advocates, in contrast, favor letting developers benefit from shedding their blood, sweat, and tears creating new services. 

Fortunately, U.S. patent law allows software companies freedom to choose between these approaches.  Companies that want to give away their technology can.  The existence of myriads of General Public Licenses (GPLs) stands as tribute to their choices.  In contrast, the, thousands of software patent applications stand as tribute to the flip side of that freedom. 

Of course, the rub comes when a free software advocate wants to re-use patented software.  They have to pay royalties or risk an infringement lawsuit.  They do, though, have another option: developing a competitive, non-infringing service.  The latter option represents what the patent system seeks to foster: choice for end-users between competing technologies.  That result benefits us all.

For more information regarding patent applications and Web apps please see or contact us at (512) 897-0399.

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