Australian Software Leaders Call For Abolishing Patents

by Ostatic Staff - Aug. 04, 2010

In one of the largest united fronts against software patents in recent history, more than 500 people--many of them well-known players in the Australian software industry--have signed an open petition asking the Australian government to end software patents altogether. The letter links to a collection of assets cobbled together under the rubric "Patent Absurdity," with the subtitle "how software patents broke the system." Large U.S.-based software titans such as Adobe, Oracle, Microsoft, IBM and Apple are featured on the Patent Absurdity page. Is abolishing patents altogether right for the software industry though?

If you follow open source software and the issue of patents at all, you're probably familiar with the many ways large, proprietary software companies have exploited them over the years. In some cases, companies haven't exploited them outright but have kept the lingering threat around that they will do so, as Microsoft has been accused of doing with sketchy patents related to Linux. Occasionally, large proprietary software companies have won public favor by taking patented technology and freeing it in the open source world, as IBM has done in contributing code to the Open Invention network. (Microsoft has also contributed patented technology to the Linux community.)

The dance between "good cop" and "bad cop" behavior surrounding software patents is an ongoing one. But, if you have any questions about whether companies exploit software patents, and behave like patent trolls, check out this post we did when former Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz (shown above) left his company and published a tell-all blog post exposing patent shenanigans. Schwartz, of course, oversaw Sun during a period of company dedication to open source and opposition to many types of patents.

He wrote that Steve Jobs allegedly threatened to sue Sun at one point over patents:

"In 2003, after I unveiled a prototype Linux desktop called Project Looking Glass, Steve called my office to let me know the graphical effects were 'stepping all over Apple’s IP.' (IP = Intellectual Property = patents, trademarks and copyrights.) If we moved forward to commercialize it, [Jobs said] 'I’ll just sue you.'

My response was simple. 'Steve, I was just watching your last presentation, and Keynote looks identical to Concurrence – do you own that IP?' Concurrence was a presentation product built by Lighthouse Design, a company I’d help to found and which Sun acquired in 1996."

According to Schwartz, Steve "was silent" after that rebuttal." Schwartz goes on to detail a meeting he was in with Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer from Microsoft, in which Gates allegedly "skipped the small talk" and said: “Microsoft owns the office productivity market, and our patents read all over OpenOffice.”

The move by Australian software leaders to abolish patents seems a little over the top. Some ideas scream out for patents, and many software titans have been built on fairly patented software. Still, if anyone has any question that software patents get exploited, Schwartz's post called "What I Couldn't Say" is worth rereading.