Education and software patents

I recently found a paper published in 2004 by European Schoolnet: Software Patents – A Potential Hindrance of
ICT in Education
. This if the first paper I’ve found on this topic and I find it well written, so I’ve summarised it below.

The authors, Riina Vuorikari and Karl Sarnow, boil the problems down to three: higher costs and less choice, legal risks for in-house development, and harm to free software.

1. Legal risks to in-house development

According to the paper, this is a lot more important than most would think:

An interesting feature that was discovered in a survey conducted at the end of 2002 on the use of virtual learning environments (VLE) in schools was that many national educational agencies and Ministries of Education surveyed (10/17) fund the development and localisation of VLEs at a national level. About two thirds of respondent schools (n=500) used an in-house or open source VLE, whereas commercial products represented about one third of the VLEs in the field.

The link in the document is broken, but I’ve found the report on their website: Final Report: Virtual Learning Environments for European Schools.

What would European software patents mean for the new development? Many of the innovations that are seeking a patent currently in Europe include much used ideas on the Internet such as “related results: show related results if customer likes the current ones”[EP628919], “support database: network support system using databasesxi”[EP673135], formats like MP3 [Covered by numerous patents, e.g. EP287578] and JPEG [EP266049], to mention a few.

2. Higher costs, less choice

The situation in schools could change because of the software patent system; the choice of available software could become limited and costs of using underlying communication structures, operating systems and any software could increase.

3. Free software / Open-source software

In this section, the paper gives a good overview of the benefits of free software to schools. It’s not overly long, so here it is in full:

The ones holding patents, usually well-to-do multinational corporations, could enforce their patents to push competing open source products away from the markets. This would give the corporations an anti-competitive leverage, and could create a situation where Europe’s school infrastructure could become dependent upon the software products of a few major companies who could maintain their monopolies thanks to the patent laws.

The following essential factors have gained an increasingly growing acceptance within the field of education until now, but they could be jeopardised by the software patents. They can be listed as following:

1. Availability of software and possibility to localise language version. A variety of mature open source software is already available for many purposes; it is easy to find tools for schools, too. When dealing with young children, it is of the utmost importance that they have access to the tools in their own language. One special feature of open source in education is the availability of software in many languages, including also small language groups with very limited markets that would probably not attract localisation from the big software industry. For example, an office suite, allows user groups to translate the programme ; there are currently about 100 language versions being developed. Many language versions make open source software also attractive for language learning and teaching purposes.

2. Freedom from license management. An often sited benefit of free and open source software is the fact that it allows users to make copies and distribute programmes and simply obviates many of the problems related to piracy, illegal copying and illicit use of software. For schools, software piracy represents a real issue: some schools with small budgets are undoubtedly tempted to install pirated software on school computes to avoid paying for upgrades. Obviously this moral dilemma can be avoided if schools use available alternatives. With open source software schools could give away freely whole distributions of software, including the operating system and any needed applications.

Another advantage is that students are free to take home any of the open source software that they use at school without infringing software licenses. This enables the students to carry out their homework using the same software as in school. As for the teacher managing the school network, not worrying about licenses means a reduction in workload, as, for example, no record on installed software needs to be kept.

3. Freedom of technical structure. The networking tools used in the school infrastructure are overwhelming in both number and quality. Many school servers, for example, run on Linux nowadays. Also Terminal Server and Thin Client-systems can offer interesting opportunities for schools to re-use outdating hardware by connecting low-powered thin client terminals to a Linux serverxv.

4. Selling services and local job opportunities. Growing interest in selling services related to open source software is also becoming more prominent in the educational sector. Many software companies now offers both “. org” for open sourcing and “.com” for fee-based services. In Finlandxvi, for example, a small business now sells e-services to local schools. Where the courseware Moodle itself is free to use, the revenue is generated by selling training and guaranteeing that the services run smoothly and the maintenance is taken care of.