Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Minh Nguyễn
February 9th, 2005


Patents for the Belgians

Generally speaking, those in the free/open source software community detest patents, IP claims, and other such nonsense, because they really infringe on our creativity. But I’ve probably never seen such a great analogy as this defense of patents:

Patents are like nuclear bombs, you just got to have some.

(Read the full entry.)

The problem is, the FOSS community turns out to be the Belgium of the 21st century: we’re neutral, but we always get trampled upon – we’re an easy target. The W3C, for example, had to completely revamp their policy on royalties and patents in their technologies, after various groups raised a ruckus over their original policy.

As I understand it, the W3C can’t hold patents on any of their technologies – they’re like the UN in this overextended analogy. But its member companies – folks like Microsoft and IBM – are free do hold their own patents on these technologies, even in secret. Just as long as they don’t charge royalties on it.

That’s the policy they instituted last year. But what about technologies created beforehand, ones that might be covered by post ex-facto patents?

When companies like Eolas and SCO sparked fears that prospectors would claim crucial Web technologies as their own and charge royalties for them, those fighting against IP claims had to resort to claiming prior art – I did it first, so you can’t claim that it was your idea. But since the FOSS does primarily operate for free, it really is costly to fight these claims.

As with any alliance or superpower system, there’s always going to be a third party that suffers. The third-party Switzerland may be spared because of its Swiss banks, which everyone has a stake in. But what’ll protect us against more prospectors?

I’m actually counting on goodwill. (Not to be confused with the economic definition of goodwill that is for some reason formally defined in textbooks.) Recently, big patent holders like IBM and Sun Microsystems have released hoardes of their patents for free, allowing people to once again innovate without fear of extortion. I don’t know the business strategy behind it (there must be one), but I’m sure it has something to do with their increasing support of open source software, such as Linux.

IBM et al. have surprisingly kickstarted disarmament. Maybe, in the future, patents won’t be necessary any more. They’ll be relegated to the footnotes of economic history.

Until that day comes, we’ll have to watch our backs and learn some Belgish. (Alright… Dutch or French or German or Flemish or Walloon… but you get the joke, don’t you?)

Thanks to Justin Kirby for the scoop.


  1. In an open letter to Bill Gates, Håkon Lie has eloquently responded to Gates’s recent memo about “interoperability” in Microsoft software. Why Microsoft owes us actions, not words.