Software // Enterprise Applications
Commentary
10/27/2004
07:31 PM
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High-Tech Ambulance Chasers

Patent lawsuits and other intellectual property conflicts are grabbing plenty of headlines lately. Yet I don't see this subject as just another hot news item--I consider it the biggest threat the open-source software community has ever faced, and it may be the most serious threat the U.S. technology industry as a whole has ever faced as well.

Patent lawsuits and other intellectual property conflicts are grabbing plenty of headlines lately. Yet I don't see this subject as just another hot news item--I consider it the biggest threat the open-source software community has ever faced, and it may be the most serious threat the U.S. technology industry as a whole has ever faced as well.

Too many open-source developers, vendors and users still associate intellectual property problems with the usual suspects: the sad-sack con artists running what's left of SCO, or perhaps Microsoft with its vague threats of a patent-fueled legal offensive against open-source competitors. These examples, and dozens of others like them, aren't the problem; they're symptoms of a patent system so badly broken it might single-handedly destroy the United States' leadership in the global tech industry.

Open-source developers and vendors, as we have seen, are especially vulnerable to the kinds of legalized extortion the current patent system encourages. Software patents are, by their nature, not about protecting a particular product or a specific collection of code; they're about granting a monopoly on an idea. In theory, the system has its uses. In practice, however, we have seen what kinds of patents the system produces--unreasonable, irrational exercises in absurdity.

The U.S. patent system has its origins in the Constitution, with its mission to "promote the progress of science and useful arts." As it stands today, however, the system has increasingly become a tool for stifling competition, discouraging innovation and enriching people whose only talent is their ability to hire competent lawyers. This stuff makes ambulance-chasing look like an honorable profession, and it's time to put a stop to it.

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