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The threat of software patents persists

At the Free Software Foundation (FSF) we have reported extensively on many issues concerning user freedom. In this article, we will reintroduce a problem that has plagued the free software community for many years: the problem of software patents. In the past, we had several successful campaigns against them, and people have mistakenly assumed that the threat has gone away. It has not. Patents have steadily been dominating the software sector, and the situation is bound to get worse.

Before we delve into the complexities of this issue, it’s important to know the basics: a patent is a legal tool that gives its owner the right to prevent others from using an invention in any way for a limited period of years. A software patent is a patent that applies to software.

What follows will answer a number of questions: what software patents are; what their history is; what their legal status is today; what problem is posed by their enforcement; how our past successful campaigns were not enough to eliminate them; and finally, how you can help us fight against them, today. Unfortunately, for a proper explanation we ought to get a bit technical, but please bear with us.

A brief history of software patents

First, of all, the concept of software patents has been around for a long time (even since the 1960s), but the debate on the patentability of software became widespread when the Free Software Foundation was founded in the 1980s. While the FSF does not take a position on the impact of patents in other spheres, we consider them to be both unethical and counterproductive in the field of software. One of the most worrying effects of software patents is the way they prevent new software from being written, yet even if this weren’t the case, software patents would still be an inherently unethical restriction on individual freedom. Even in the 1980s, it was clear that the magnitude of the problem was such that Richard Stallman founded the (now defunct) League for Programming Freedom in 1989, an organization aiming to ally all developers (including those of proprietary software) against software patents.

Today, few people are aware of the dangers behind software patents, and how the world is affected by them. To give a quick overview, in the US, patents are handled by the federal courts, while Europe has different, independent national laws on patents. Recently, however, the adoption of the Unitary Patent and the Unitary Patent Court are bound to replace regulations of individual EU member states with ones that are valid for the entirety of the EU, making (software) patent enforcement in Europe drastically easier. Globally, each country has unique patent laws and the patentability of software may differ considerably. But the general picture is that software patents are continuously granted.

It is crucial to emphasize that software patents are enforced without ever going through a process of direct approval by the public. In 2002, a proposal was made to legitimize software patents in the EU, but it was defeated in the European Parliament by an overwhelming majority of 648 to 14 votes, thanks in part to a massive effort by the free software movement and its allies. The success of that campaign demonstrated that people are able to change the course of proposed life-affecting policies, provided that they are included in the process, and properly informed. Unfortunately, the course of events both then and now also proves that democracy requires the utmost vigilance, and any period of relaxation works against the will of the people. Despite the defeat of the software patent directive in 2002, the software industry has successfully pushed for new policies that will favor it. This is where the aforementioned Unitary Patent and Unified Patent Court come into play, since it is well known that the European Patent Office has a vested interest in expanding patent dominance in all fields, particularly in the software sector.

Software patents constitute a critical attack on user freedom

The issue of software patents is a particular one. To understand the extent of patents, it is necessary to distinguish patent law from copyright law. While copyright covers the original expression of an idea (for example, software and literary works), patents cover inventions. There is an important difference here. Copyright is applied automatically, whereas patents require a formal registration process. Also, in the case of patents, patent examiners have to judge which patent application falls within the criteria of a patent-eligible invention. This task can be very complicated, since the range of technical claims is by nature extremely wide. So, the question is: can software be regarded as a patent-eligible invention?

Naturally, one would ask: is this a problem just for software patents or patents in general? The answer is not so simple. Some people may have arguments against patents in general, but the special case of software patents is in fact widely acknowledged. In an apt article, Richard Posner pointed out that in order to define an invention under patent law, we must evaluate both the cost of inventing and the cost of copying. At one extreme, we have the pharmaceutical industry, which has very expensive production costs, but very cheap reproducibility of its products, and claims to be financially dependent on patents. At the other extreme, we have the proprietary software industry, which already uses copyright as a means to curtail user and developer freedom, and which has now roped in patent law to assist them in that. Software, with its inexpensive production costs, has never been financially dependent on patents: in the matter of fact, not only is there more than adequate proof that software can and does progress without patents, but patents can also actively prevent that progress from happening.

Battles were won, but the war is not over

So how are software patents issued? Although at a high level, patent laws around the world regard software as abstract, non-novel ideas, and thus not patentable, lawyers are able to fool judges with clever wording of their technical claims.

For example, in Europe, proponents of software patents — mainly multinational corporations and patent lawyers — avoid using the term “software patent,” because they know it reveals their intentions. Article 52 of the European Patent Convention explicitly forbids patents for “programs for computers,” but only when inventions are regarded “as such.” The European Patent Office interprets the “as such” as nullifying the exclusion. As a result, software patents are issued in Europe despite the rejection of the relevant directive in the past.

Similarly, in the US, the term “computer-implemented invention” has become rather popular, but its definition is ambiguous on purpose. Despite Supreme Court cases Alice and Bilski being regarded as having restrictive rulings on the patentability of software, the judges chose not to clear the legal landscape. Today, there are still many court case inconsistencies, and the US Patent and Trademark Office continues to grant software patents.

We can only strengthen our cause with your help

If everything above sounds confusing, that’s because it is. The issue of software patents is very complicated, and most people have never even heard of the term. In any case, the end result is that software patents are still being issued. In this article, we have only scratched the surface in regard to how software patents affect us. If you are unfamiliar with software patents, you can learn more at our End Software Patents wiki. If you are familiar with the issue, please consider contributing to the wiki. Every contribution helps.

In a world where multinational corporations have unlimited political influence, while citizens are deprived of the necessary democratic mechanisms to control them, the future is bleak. At the same time, the acceleration of technological progress in the recent years has led to an astounding ubiquity of software in all fields of life. With software patents being granted in every digitized sector, the significance of user freedom increases exponentially.

Consider this: when we were kids, we looked forward to the future with eager anticipation. Most of us imagined an automated world, with robot servants and flying cars. Growing up, many of us regrettably realized that the dominance of proprietary software has been turning all these futuristic ideas into an Orwellian universe. Proprietary software threatens user freedom. But software patents affect us to an even more fundamental degree: they limit our very ability to write software that respects user freedom, undermining our freedom of expression.

If we do not act, the future is bleak. To shape a free world, we must cooperate. Our End Software Patents campaign, including its wiki, was created years ago, but we are now in the process of renovating it. If you believe our cause is just, you can join us. Whatever your background, there are many ways to help: from educating others about this issue and participating in discussions, to influencing your country’s policies, to contributing to our wiki with new information.

End Software Patents has a rich past, such as submitting amicus briefs to courts, creating the Patent Absurdity documentary, and featuring almost 650 wiki entries, as well as dozens of articles. If you’re interested in the campaign and would like to get involved, you can join our effort in the following ways:

Jarek Duda on software patents

Jarek Duda is a lecturer in Institute of Computer Science and Computational Mathematics of Jagiellonian University. He has education in computer science (PhD), physics (PhD) and mathematics (MSc), focusing mainly on widely understood information theory. He is mainly known from introduction of Asymmetric Numeral Systems, which are currently replacing Huffman and arithmetic coding in data compressors among others of Apple, Facebook and Google.

This article presents the views of Jarek Duda. The Free Software Foundation calls for the total elimination of patents from the software field.

Why does the patent system respect the will of the greedy, and not the will of the idealistic?

The patent system imposes the will of these who want to make money from their ideas, preventing others from using them, even those who discover the same ideas independently. What about respecting the will of those who, instead of pursuing their own income, idealistically just want their ideas to blossom in an unrestricted way?

Consider the thousands of programmers implementing their ideas as free/libre software, or academics presenting ideas in articles. Publishing a new idea this way can open a new world of possibilities — but they can be wiped out by others that patent them. For example if there appears new algorithm B, which does the same thing as A but faster and cheaper, patent vultures can rush to patent all the well-known applications of A, except using B instead -– leading to a situation where it is legally impossible to use the algorithm B for any of its natural uses, against the will and efforts of its original author.

Theoretically, the patent system should not allow those patents. They ought to be considered “obvious.” In practice, though, these patents can be issued, because the patent office’s criterion for “unobvious” has historically been astoundingly weak.

This has happened with my ANS coding system for data compression, which is replacing Huffman and arithmetic coding due to its greater speed and performance. Companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google already use ANS to encode users’ data.

I understand others’ choosing to patent software techniques, hoping to get rich, but that is not what I have chosen for ANS. The story of arithmetic coding, which was suppressed by patents for many decades, suggested to me that ANS might be nearly unused if it was patented. As it had the potential to enable worldwide savings in energy, time, transmission costs, etc., I decided to leave the idea unpatented and just made public the required materials. I think this decision accounts for the success of ANS, just as Tim Berners-Lee’s decision not to patent the World Wide Web permitted its success.

However, ANS creates many opportunities for patents on cases of “standard practice, except with A replaced by B,” and monopolizing them could be so profitable that they could attract patent vultures. I was well aware of this danger and tried to publish about as many uses of ANS as I could. Other authors have joined in to publish all basic related ideas, making them “prior art,” what legally should prevent anyone from patenting them.

Turns out, that’s not so easy to achieve: I am aware of two ANS-based patent attempts. One of them has recently succeeded to monopolize ANS with the most basic statistical modeling: that probability of a symbol depends on the previous symbol, while using combined with another basic technique of data compression, “escape codes” indicating to switch between multiple models.

The second patent attempt is by Google, which tries to monopolize the image/video compression application of ANS. I have originally suggested to them these applications (like using ANS for transform coefficients), and have helped them develop this adaptation for three years, communicating with them through their public forum –- hoping for a formal collaboration between my university and Google, to build a team to advance this area more efficiently.

Instead, I have accidentally found out that Google has filed a patent application for more than 100 countries, including the US and Poland. International Searching Authority (ISA) criticized the application in official opinion, saying it involves no “inventive step” and would be invalid, additionally pointing out materials like communication with me they originally did not disclose. However, even after wide media coverage, Google is not commenting or communicating regarding this case, and is probably currently rewriting the patent application, determined to reach the monopolization.

Dear patent officers and corporations: instead of scaring idealists from showing their ideas and crippling the development, please respect the discoverers’ will to make them free, allowing them to blossom in an unrestricted way.

A new idea often inspires others to develop consequent concepts, often multiple times independently – there is some period when allowing for their monopolization is unjustified and extremely bad for the general development.

If those who want to make money from their invention are given 20 years, please also give some protection period for those who just want their ideas to freely develop in society.

Implement and let implement!

US Supreme Court reining in software patents

(For analysis and info links, see the wiki page Alice v. CLS Bank.)

“Reining in”. It wasn’t easy to find a term that was both accurate and also vague enough to describe what just happened. The US Supreme Court today published its decision on Alice v. CLS Bank. It’s too early to say exactly what the effects will be, but the news is certainly all good: The Court in no way extended patentability nor did it affirm patentability for any sub-category of software; and a certain category of software patents has definitely been invalidated.

Continue reading

What’s wrong with the EU unitary patent?

The European Parliament approving the unitary patent is bad because:

  1. Patents become a lot cheaper, which means more patents, which means more restrictions and litigation. People can now get one patent that’s valid in 25 countries (the EU minus Spain and Italy), instead of making 25 separate applications involving many translations. If patents were a good thing, then efficiency would be welcome, but in domains such as software, patents are an affliction.
  2. Litigation becomes more profitable. Patent holders can now go to a single European court to ask for payment for infringements in multiple countries instead of having to go to each national court. The inefficiency of the old system was what saved Europe from masses of litigation. Patent holders preferred to litigate in the USA. Now they’ll litigate and racketeer in Europe too.
  3. There’s also the risk that this new court will be made up of judges who are “experts” in patents, i.e. have a background in the patent industry and will bring a strong pro-patent bias, thus entrenching software patents in Europe just like was done in 1982 in the USA when they created the pro-patent appeals court, the CAFC.
  4. (I’ll have to read the details on this last point, but I hope the European Parliament hasn’t given away its power to legislate on what is and isn’t patentable. Anti-software-patent legislation at the EU level is now acutely more necessary.)

One remaining ray of hope is that the European Court of Justice might throw it out. There’s an obvious democratic problem: unitary patents will only be published in English, and if you use a patented idea without permission, you’ve broken the law. So, if you don’t speak English, how do you avoid breaking the law?


That’s how stupid this idea is. The European Parliament’s vote is an act of desparation, but for what? Why was there so much pressure to get this done? As IP lawyer Alison Crofts wrote in 2007, back when the proposal was called the EPLA:

“The industry-based driving force behind the EPLA comes from the pro-software patent group as a way of ensuring that their software or potential software patents are fully enforceable across Europe.”

More information:

Good “End Software Patents” video – not by us

There’s a good anti-software-patent video on YouTube (in WebM video format):

Despite the name it has no connection to us but it’s a very good 2 minute video explaining some of the problems of software patents.

For anyone who’s thinking of making a similar video, here are some ideas:

  • Software developers that reuse ideas shouldn’t be portrayed as “immitators”. Reuse of ideas is often essential for compatibility. A person developing a new word processor might find the Microsoft Word format ridiculous but if their software can’t read and write the documents that exist then it won’t be a useful word processor so they’re required to reuse certain ideas.
  • In another situation, reuse of patented ideas is also often accidental, even unavoidable. With hundreds of thousands of software patents, it’s impossible to check if all the ideas in your software haven’t been patented. So this isn’t immitation either.
  • The GNU project and the free software movement have been the most outspoken campaigners against software patents, so it’s unfortunate that the video only talks about “Linux” (instead of GNU/Linux) and “open source”.
  • Software development shouldn’t be presented as a “market”. For pharmaceutical development, we can talk of “markets” because the market is the only system that mass produces pharmaceuticals. For software, crucial software development is done by hobbyists, user groups, and other non-market groups. A software market does exist, and we should remove economic barriers to entering that market, but we also have to remove economic and legal barriers which block non-market groups from developing software. (See: Why software is different)
  • The airplane and Newton examples at the end are good, but it would be better to avoid likening software patent problems to hardware patent problems. Hardware is more like pharmaceuticals. Mass production of airplanes is only done by markets (hobbyists exist but patent holders have little reason to attack people that only make a tiny number of airplanes). Highlighting problems with patents in general is good to make people question the foundation of the patent system, but harm in the airplane industry doesn’t necessarily make the point that patents are bad for software.
  • And one minor point: it’s not necessary to wholly endorse pharmaceutical patents. Maybe some changes in pharmaceutical patents would also be good for society. Maybe the 20 year term is too long? Too short? Maybe the term should begin when the medicine has been approved for public use? Maybe patents are harming the health system because they give pharmaceutical companies an incentive to push new, patented, profitable medication even in cases where existing, non-patented medicine is better? I’m no expert on pharmaceuticals, so I wouldn’t feel confident in giving pharmaceutical patents a blanket endorsement, especially without mentioning that the effects differ between rich and poor countries.

Stallman: completely shielding software instead of exempting it

Richard Stallman’s latest article on software patents suggests that instead of a law excluding software from patentability, we need a law saying “that developing, distributing, or running a program on generally used computing hardware does not constitute patent infringement.

This would achieve the same goal as a software exception but avoids the difficult problem of drafting a text which classifies patents as “software” or “non-software”.

For an example of how this is workable, he refers to 35 U.S.C. Section 287 (c), which was written in 1996 to shield surgeons from patent risks.

If you have ideas for how this could work best, please feel free to write them on the relevant wiki page:

Software patents coming to EU via unitary patent

The unitary patent proposal has been floating about for years, under various names, but it seems to now be getting dangerous. I don’t know all the details of the current situation and I haven’t found a satisfying overview, so I’ll point you to a list of pages and then discuss some general aspects that seem to still be true from when I previously worked on this.

[UPDATE: There now more info at]


The best three links come from April, the organisation most active on this:

They also have a useful list of links in the "additional resources" section at the end of

My own efforts, which I’ll have to update and expand, are on the ESP wiki:

General aspects

In general, the unitary patent and the Unified Patent Court are two parts of a project from the European Commission which will have three effects:

First, it creates an EU court which is controlled by the European Patent Office (EPO) and will approve the EPO’s legally invalid software patents.

Second, it increases the power of the EPO by rubber stamping the EPO’s patents, without the EU even having any control over the EPO.

And third, it makes litigation faster, cheaper, and more lucrative by allowing patent holders to seek damages and blocks for all participating countries. More efficient litigation is promoted by the European Commission as a good thing. For some fields of product development this might even be true (I don’t know), but for software this will bring EU into the same mess as the USA. The EU already has a lot of software patents, but the costliness of the patent system discourages litigation.

I’ll try to write an explanation of the details in the coming weeks.

The solution to Posner’s patent problem

Richard Posner, a very influential US judge, has written an article about the current patent system’s problems and their causes. The article provides useful support for many software patent abolition arguments. He unfortunately closes with suggestions which are unhelpful or even counter-productive (with the exception of his suggestion of a shorter duration for some domains, which I discuss below). In particular, his suggestion of giving more resources and power to the patent office would be a catastrophe. What we really need is to rein in the patent offices and remove their power to grant software patents. (And this would have the side-effect of reducing their workload and thus easing their resource problems.) Here’s his article: Why There Are Too Many Patents in America.

It’s a pity. The build-up of his argument seemed to be leading straight to a conclusion that patents shouldn’t be granted in domains where research and development are cheap (compared to pharmaceuticals):

the need for patent protection in order to provide incentives for innovation varies greatly across industries. […] Most industries could get along fine without patent protection. […] I would lay particular stress on the cost of invention. […in industries where…] the cost of a specific improvement may be small, and when that is true it is difficult to make a case for granting a patent. The improvement will be made anyway, without patent protection, as part of the normal competitive process in markets where patents are unimportant.

Framing the discussion in terms of "industries" also propagates a bias by ignoring the problems caused to developers who are not part of the relevant industry. While it’s true that large scale production of pharmaceuticals and cars is exclusively done by industries, software is developed by a mix of industry, hobbyists, user communities and people in other domains who develop software incidentally as a means to getting their other work done. And it’s the non-"industry" developers who are most vulnerable when attacked by a team of lawyers. A good use of "industry" could be: patents should only exist in domains where production is exclusively an activity of industry.

The first measure Posner mentions for alleviating the problem is to reduce the patent term for inventors in certain industries. If he means reducing the term to 3 or 5 years for patents on software, then that could indeed be a big win. To do this, a government first has to declare that software ideas are not eligible for normal patents (the kind defined by TRIPS) and then create a new type of short patent. However, the examination procedure would have to be much faster, which brings a risk of much lower standards and thus an explosion in the number of software patents. Part of the benefit would also be undone by software monopolists adapting their tactics and updating their media formats and communication protocols more frequently so that the formats in wide use are always under patent control.

In summary, if this gets handed to us we should be very happy but it’s not a complete solution, it’s not easy, and in terms of effort it’s a detour rather than a stepping stone to where we have to go.

Posner’s other suggestions are less hopeful. He suggests getting rid of jury trials, and better training for judges. That might help invalidate more of the wrongly granted patents, thus reducing the number of patents somewhat, but that won’t change much (until patents on software ideas get classified as wrongly granted). Take the very popular H.264 video format for example. The MPEG LA cartel manages a portfolio of 346 patents in the USA alone which it claims are necessary for an implementation of that video format. Reducing that number by 50% would change nothing for developers of video software. It would still be covered by a big thicket of patents.

Worse, he then suggests giving more resources to the patent office and giving it the additional power to hear patent infringement cases. The patent office has a financial interest in granting as many patents as possible, so increasing their resources would probably result in an increase in patents granted. Giving the patent office the competence to hear infringement cases would mean that disputed patents would be reviewed by the same biased organisation that granted them in the first place. This would be disastrous.

That said, it’s encouraging to see that he has a good understanding of the roots of the problem, and that he agrees that different domains should be treated differently. The US Supreme Court’s Bilski and Mayo rulings also show that certain judges understand that something has to change. We have to keep explaining that abolition is necessary and smaller solutions just don’t work.

See also:

Brazilian patent office software patent consultation

Brazil’s patent office has launched a consultation about granting software patents.

Please join the ESP-Br mailing list and help us: discussao-br (Portuguese).

The patent office’s page about the consultation is here: Consulta pública sobre exame de patente implementada por software.

For info and links, there are ESP wiki pages in English:

And in Portuguese:

The deadline appears to be May 15th. The wiki page is publicly-editable. If you can add info, that would be helpful.

New ESP Australia video plus committee hearing recording

Two exiting recordings from Australia:


Or, to view Ben’s presentation in WebM format via YouTube, first go to YouTube’s HTML5 page to make sure everything works. Then you can watch Ben’s presentation at

EU court advisors: owning software ideas detrimental to progress

There are no patents involved in the SAS Institute v. World Programing Ltd case, but there’s a very interesting statement from the European Court of Justice’s legal advisors, the Advocates-General:

To accept that a functionality of a computer program can be protected as such would amount to making it possible to monopolise ideas, to the detriment of technological progress and industrial development.

The context is that a company tried to claim ownership of certain software features via copyright, so “as such“, here, refers to the use of copyright. Now, if the same monopoly was sought through patents, the only difference would be that instead of lasting fifty or seventy years, it would last only twenty. Twenty years is an eternity in software development, so software problems that would exist under copyright-based monopolies would also exist under patent-based monopolies.

It seems likely then that the Advocates-General would also find patent-based software idea monopolies detrimental to technological progress and industrial development. Good to know we might have an ally there.

For more information, or to add your thoughts, see the ESP wiki:

Note: it’s unfortunate that the Advocates-General refer to monopolisation of an idea as “protection”. I’ve added some recommendations about words to the ESP wiki: Terminology recommendations. I’ll try to add more soon. Your ideas are welcome there too.

Study calculates economic harm from patent trolls

By studying the movements of the stock market, three researchers from Boston University School of Law have found that over the past twenty years patent trolls have cost publicly listed US product developers 500 billion US$, and the rate is rising year by year. They’ve also shown that very little of this is transfered to the small inventors which trolls sometimes use to justify their existence. That last part won’t surprise readers of this website, but it’s important to have a credible document to prove these things.

[Because trolls are just one of many problems caused by software patents, and aren’t the biggest problem either, this figure represents only a fraction of the total harm caused by software patents]

Read on for some excerpts, or read the full paper: The Private and Social Costs of Patent Trolls (source).

Two of the researchers, Bessen and Meurer are already known for their individual writings on software patents, plus and their book Patent Failure. They’re joined in this paper by Jennifer Ford.

Continue reading

ESP Australia presentation recording

Ben Sturmfels of ESP Australia recently gave a talk outlining the problems caused by software patents. A recording is online at:

  • Ben will be giving another presentation on January 19th with more of a focus on the current campaign in Australia:
    2:20pm, Thursday January 19th at the University of Ballarat.

    Ben’s talk is a good example for anyone tasked with giving such a presentation. There’s also a wiki page where you can get some ideas or add your own tips:

    Petition This American Life to use Ogg Vorbis

    NPR published a really excellent article on patent trolls in the software industry. Great. They then broadcast a radio version on This American Life. Great exposure for the issue, but, it was published in the still-patented MP3 format.

    Freeing the Internet from patent encumbered audio-video formats is going to take a lot of work, but it has to be done, so we have to keep working on it step by step. Because the authors of this article understand the problems caused by software patents, they’re more likely to listen to our arguments.