Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Patents Kill Open Source

While working on his PhD Thesis in Computer Science, Andrew Tridgell (now famous for his work in creating SAMBA) grew discontent with waiting for whole files to be transferred over a dial-up connection when only a small update to the file had been made. So he invented the now-pervasive rsync algorithm and tool, which is currently in wide-use for remotely synchronizing data across machines. The tool is popular because it performs this function more efficiently than anything else available.

But there was a problem: someone else had independently invented a similar concept in 1994, and held a patent on the process. Through a "gentleman's agreement," the patent holder agreed not to pursue litigation against rsync.

In 1999, a new idea based on the rsync algorithm was ripe for implementation: RProxy. It held the promise of reducing web browser traffic by as much as 85%, alleviating a lot of frustration among dialup users of the time, as well as being useful today in much of the developing world. There was one problem: the 1994 patent. Because of this patent, RProxy never saw the light of day.

Perhaps this is no big loss. Perhaps RProxy would have had little, if any, impact. But we'll never know. The free market never got to decide. Maybe one day RProxy will be resurrected, but if it is to hope to avoid patent infringement claims, it must wait until at least 2014 to do so.

Do you know of other free (or proprietary) software that was killed by murky patent claims? We often hear of big companies like RIM and Microsoft running afoul of patent trolls, but the press seems less interested in the story of the little guy, whose innovations were smothered by the massive weight of hundreds of thousands of patents granted each year. What software don't we have today, because of the patent system?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, there's the guys who got shut down because they wrote some software to access the advanced features of Plextor DVD recorders:

8:34 PM  
Anonymous Todd said...

Linux distributors had to drop support for MP3 a couple of years ago, because of licensing demands from Fraunhofer. It's still true today that the most popular free linux distros don't dare ship with MP3 decoders, so if you install RedHat's Fedora, Debian, Gentoo, Ubuntu, etc., you'll have to find MP3 players/decoders yourself afterwards. Novell recently bit the bullet and paid off Fraunhofer on behalf of its customers, and can now ship an mp3 player with its desktop offering, but that doesn't work for most of the free distros, who have a hard time accounting for how many actual users they might have, let alone paying someone for each of those users.

8:44 PM  
Anonymous todd said...

Here's a link to Fraunhoffer's extortion-racket cease and desist letter:

8:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a company called 'Divine' that "owns" a patent portfolio on all the basics of online ordering, and that sends out blanket C&D letters to anyone engaged in that activity:

9:47 PM  
Blogger Jackson Lenford said...

I just found this gem, and will be writing it up to the front page shortly. More stories like this are very welcome.

Ben Jacobsen, a model railroad hobbyist, wrote a bunch of free software to let you hook up your computer to your model railroad and control trains throug it.

And then KAM Industries tried asserting their 'patent rights' over doing just that.

When the author of the open source railroad controller asked for additional information about what claims were being infringed, KAM sent him an invoice for $203,000, claiming that the 7000 or so users of his software resulted in damages of at least $29/each.

KAM then sent a request to the author's academic sponsor (unrelated to the model railroad work), requesting copies of all his email and other correspondence. This was obviously a dirty tactic meant to rattle Jacobsen more than anything else.

Several more threatening letters arrived. Finally, in January of this year, Jacobsen pointed out that he didn't believe their patent would withstand a challenge in court, noting that there was plenty of prior art, including his allegedly infringing software, which was available before KAM filed their patent application. He also pointed out that they must have known this all along. In February, KAM's lawyers responded by claiming that they know of no prior art, and that their patent predated all prior art, and that they still viewed Jacobsen's work as infringing on their patent rights.

This is all still ongoing. It isn't clear that KAM thinks it is in the wrong.

But it is abundantly clear that this type of patent is detrimental to innovation, and that it hurts the efforts of those trying to make the world a better place by producing tools (for free in this case!) for others to use.

9:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

SBC sent out lots of C&D letters in 2003 to websites that used "frames," regardless of whether the website was commercial in nature or not:

9:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's also the threat that Microsoft will force Linux to remove FAT support, breaking its ability to read digital camera and USB memory stick devices.

9:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


10:14 PM  

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