Little over a year ago i was browsing a web site and come across this article about large companies trying to patent everything under the sun in terms of software. At the time i didn't give it much thought until i realized what this could mean for open source software.
All of the big open source projects i have seen in the past little while are all done by guys who program for the love of programing. These same guys if forced to stop development on a project over a patent wouldn't have a choice. A patent holder may not even tell them to stop with the development of project but may want them to to pay a license fee. That alone would kill most open source projects since they are done for free and don't have big budgets to pay patent license fees..
To show you how stupid this gets take the latest case where creative is trying to take apple to court over the ipod menu interface and how it navigates the songs. This is a slippery slope and in terms of programming and software its a real bad thing. Its a good thing if your the big fat cat company with tons of cash to patent everything under the sun.
The only thing you have to keep in mind is open source normally means free software and free also means that for the most part no one is getting paid to make the software. Likewise these same developers wouldn't have the cash on hand to be able to go out and patent things before the big companies get to it , patents are not cheap.
This problem is very serious for a Operating System like Linux where nearly all of its code is based on free open source code. This also impacts windows because there are a lot of good open source software packages for it as well.
Programs like Firefox , open office , Mozilla Thunderbird email client could all come to a screeching hault. The only really good thing about any of this is open source has some big backers on its side who also hold a ton of patents. Companies such as IBM and recently Computer Associates among others have donated patents for certain things to open source so that the open source community can use them and not worry about the big companies latter on coming in and claiming patent infringement.
Companies like IBM keep companies like Microsoft in check. Microsoft is another big evil company that if it had it's way would shut open source programs down for good. Microsoft see's open source as a big pain in the ass. Microsoft also has numerous patents of its own but as of yet hasn't started to push its weight around that i know of and i think thats do to IBM and other big companies and their patent portfolios.
Do to these software patents Richard Stallman who invented the GPL witch is the license scheme that many of the open software projects use , is trying to make another version of the GPL that would impose penalty's on big companies trying to use software patents to shut down other projects. From what i have read about this i tend to agree with most people out there that the new GPL wont have much in the way of teeth when it comes to stopping patent holders from trying to stifle competition or innovation but at least its a start.
This is something to keep a eye on for sure in the future and see how things go. I wish the whole software patent thing didn't even exist or make it so big companies cant patent certain things in terms of software. Until that day comes though we are stuck with what we got.
I can't say enough though about the big companies like IBM and others who have donated their patents to further improve open source and my hats off to them for that.