February 7, 2006

Patent reform panel visits Hamilton LUG

Author: Crystle Numan

Hamilton, Ontario, Linux and open source enthusiasts were privileged to hear former Red Hat CEO Bob Young, author and Unix historian Peter Salus, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Ren Bucholz banter about SCO vs. Linux and other patent and copyright issues at a meeting of the Hamilton Linux User Group last week. Outside of the discussion that went on, there were interesting dynamics among the speakers and also between the panel and audience.

The bantering and jokes meant that the meeting about SCO, which has been trying to sue companies who use Linux for copyright infringement, was upbeat. Things do not look promising for SCO, but all three panelists next expressed their concern about the status of copyrights and patents. None of them were in favour of abolishing patents and copyrights, but rather prefer a return to a sensible system that will be effective to encourage innovation, as they were originally intended.

Looking to the big picture, Young said he has seen the insidious way the current patent and copyright system, which he says is out of control, can be abused to stifle innovation and harm small players. International law can even be used to force local changes that would not normally be passed.

Salus spoke of how the system has been lobbied to change for the worse and how the patent office has monetary incentives for officials to approve patents. It is also lucrative for lawyers, who make an average of $25,000 per filing. With at least 100,000 patents filed each year, this is a $2.5 billion market!

Bucholz mentioned how patent and copyright laws are now touching everyone's everyday life for the worse, with lawsuits being filed as against customers, using download information obtained from their ISPs. He also mentioned the possible loss of Blackberry use in the United States.

By now, the audience was no longer upbeat. Programmers spoke of their concern about losing control over code or being sued out of business. The moderator commented that some companies are buying patents like lottery tickets, hoping a few will strike jackpot.

In the face of this, the panelists spoke of the proponents of open source and patent and copyright reform. They mentioned IBM for its work versus SCO as well as other initiatives like the Patent Commons. Organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has also found natural allies on the international stage in developing countries that want access to agricultural and pharmaceutical technology. Bucholz also spoke of legislation in the works in Canada, Europe, and the United States that attempts to make a more balanced patent system.

The evening ended with a call to everyone who cares about free and open source software to speak to their local politicians and share their views on patents and copyrights. By sharing the practical reasons to support patent and software reform, friends also could be convinced to talk with their politicians. As Young said more than once during the evening, "Votes trump money."

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