Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Friday 18/3/2005...Oh, yes they can. Just when you think you've exhausted your stocks of ghast, Microsoft comes along and proves that no matter how badly it's behaved in the past it can still summon up the demonic energy to surpass all known records.

Friday 18/3/2005

...Oh, yes they can. Just when you think you've exhausted your stocks of ghast, Microsoft comes along and proves that no matter how badly it's behaved in the past it can still summon up the demonic energy to surpass all known records. It's been found guilty of withholding information unfairly from people who want to write software that works with their servers, and told to cough up. So it has — in the form of an expensive licence that dangles the threat of patent violations over those that choose not to sign up.

This is the equivalent of a vandal being given community service and then using that to redecorate the neighbourhood with spray cans — taking particular care to coat the judge's house. It's hard to know what's more offensive — a word I don't use lightly — the unveiling of Microsoft's agenda to get control over everything that touches its software, or the context of it taking place as a result of the company being declared at fault for this very activity by the highest legal authorities in Europe.

It's worse by far than previous examples of industries being hidebound by patents. One area of personal interest to me is the history of electronics, which largely evolved from the pre-war wireless industry. There, a number of basic patents covered such things as amplification, tuning, transmission and reception: in short order, these were quickly amalgamated by the major players in the industry and a licensing regime imposed that gave them great power over innovation and production. This had some very nasty effects — inventions were effectively stolen and the inventors driven to poverty, in some cases to suicide — but after a while the patents expired and the power bases dissipated, to the general benefit of the industry.

Software isn't like that. Here, patents cover abstract ideas which can be applied to the basic building blocks of software in many different ways; even as one patent expires, a variant can be prepared that just works at a slightly different abstraction. And twenty years in software, the period a patent covers, is vastly more important than the same period for a particular mechanical invention. It is quite plausible that a company or group which gets an edge in patents — and can afford to ruthlessly exploit it — will end up in effective indefinite control of the entire software industry. It is also quite plausible that this will be Microsoft, which you may remember has multiple convictions for abuse of power.

You may not want this to happen. Is anyone listening?