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Free Software, Open Source and Software Patents - why is it so important!

I keep going on about Open Source Software and the risk that software patents poses. This is why I think these are so important.

Free and open source software is an important part of many things we take for granted.

What is free and open source software

Free and open source software is software created and made freely available for everyone's benefit. A lot of the open source software is created by volunteers in their spare time but some is also created by corporations or by individual contributors sponsored by corporations.

The importance of free is not a reference to having to pay money for the software (although that is the case as well), it's about the freedom to be able to change and use the software as you wish. This is referred to as being "Free as in speech, not as in beer".

So software can be made available with no charge, but is not Free in the same sense. You can also sell Free software but it's still free for anyone to improve and use, and it's possible to get the same for free (but it may take a bit more work or not come with the same level of support).

Free software means having access to the original code so that you can modify and improve the code if you want. Although few people are able to edit the code themselves or have the desire to do so, it is the protection that this offers.

Some open source software is released under a "copyleft" license which means that if you make changes to the software you then need to make the changes available to others in the same way[1]. Other software is released under a completely free license that allows changes to be made without contributing anything back.

Even Windows users rely on open source

Microsoft Windows is not in anyway open source or free. Even if the operating system came with your computer you have paid for the software license (either that or your running an illegal copy).

Perhaps you are also running open source software on your Windows computer:

Or perhaps you have a device that is based on Linux (or other OpenSource software) without you knowing:

Even if you don't have anything yourself then you almost certainly use websites that rely on opensource software. For instance this site you are currently viewing would not be possible without free and open source software. The server runs on the open source linux operating system, using the open source apache web server, with the open source wordpress blog software, supported by an open source mysql database. The site uses dynamic content generated using an open source perl programming language and embedded code reliant on the open source PHP language. The site is designed using a Laptop running Linux and dozens of open source applications.

Without Open Source and Free software this site would not exist in it's current form.

This also applies to millions of other websites including:

Why the problem with software patents?

The problem with software patents is that they can be applied to trivial parts of an algorithm of basic function. So much so that it's possible to have hundreds of patents that apply to each program and so that it could be made impossible to create any software of any use [2].

Instead copyright law provides protection against the stealing of intellectual property without locking out others to develop their own software.

If all software patents had been enforced then a payment would need to be made every time someone clicked on a web page. BT Hyperlink Patent Issue. Fortunately BT lost their case, but there are many other patents that still stand including a huge number of patents on the MP3 protocol and players.

Another example of software patent issues is with the GIF format which was very popular for websites. Unisys, the owner of the LZW compression algorithm patent used within the GIF format challenged software companies for patent infringements [3]

Software patents only work to the benefit of large companies that build up patent arsenals. They work against freedom, against open software and against small companies.


Footnotes

1. In some circumstances (eg. internal use) and licenses then it may not always be necessary to release the changes.

2. Fortunately the European Union voted against Software Patents, although the actual interpretation of that is not completely clear. Wikipedia Software Patents in Europe.

3. The ownership of the LZW patent was made even confusing due to multiple patent registrations. Wikipedia: LZW.


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