Are software patents evil? (an introduction by a man who MAY know what he’s talking about)

Is education as we know it going to be erased from the surface of the earth?

Will the interwebs asplode into a flaming ball of knowledge slurry?

Are we decending into the heart of an impenetrable darkness?

well… probably not. And, i imagine, the medieval imagery is lost on many people. As i tramp around the internet trying to get my mind around what all of this (Net Neutrality, DOPA, blackboard patent) is going to mean for education, I keep seeing one line over and over that I’d like to explore… “Software patents are evil.” I’d like to spend a couple of minutes explaining why i think people are saying that.
First of all, any software language is just that, its a language. There are people out there who speak PHP as well as they speak English or… Klingon. Since the dawn of the internet, people’s software code has been under the same protection as the language that people use, there’s even a whole big organization that deals with the fine tuning of licenses on the internet. So, if i wanted to publish some of the code for this website

/*
Theme Name: Connections
Theme URI: http://www.patriciamuller.com/
Version: 1.0
Description: A Theme from wpthemes.Info
Author: Patricia Muller
Author URI: http://www.vanillamist.com/blog/
*/
body {
margin:0;
padding:0;
font-family: 'Trebuchet MS',Georgia, Times, Times New Roman, sans-serif;
font-size: 0.9em;
text-align:center;
color:#29303B;
line-height:1.3em;
background: #F3F6ED;
}

I should really include Patricia’s name (not that i know her) as she designed the wordpress theme that i’m using. the difference between the software i’m using here (wordpress) and some like blackboard’s software is that this software is “open source software” which means (among other things) you and i can look at the code very easily… and no one minds. That does not mean i can steal the code… it just means i can see it. Her code is still protected by whatever copyright she chooses to put on it…

My own code, of which i’ve written precious little, is protected the same way anything i’ve written on this blog is… any way i damn well please. All you need to do is declare a copyright and its protected by law… the same way that all of the moodle software is protected by their copyright.

Now, moodle’s source code is open… anyone can see it. This is not true of blackboard. Their source is, as it were, closed. And all of their code is protected from theft already. No one can see the code and, if they could, it would be illegal to use it. Desire2learn is not being sued for stealing blackboards code… or work… directly.
What Blackboard has done is patent the the ideas involved in learning online. To use an oft used comparison…

The bricklin was an… interesting car built in New Brunswick in the 70’s. If we imagine the Bricklin as Blackboards software suite, as soon as they built it, they owned a copyright over the design and over all the decisions they made in the manufacture… Now, to carry on our analogy, imagine that the people at bricklin filed a patent on THE CAR. And in their patent application they said “we’ve spent alot of money designing these gull wing doors, therefore anyone who uses a DOOR is infringing on our copyright.”

This is what the blackboard patent does… it patents the learning management system equivalent of doors and windows. While Blackboard may have done different things with their software they did not invent the IDEA of ‘doors and windows’, they worked on ideas that already existed and added their own twist. Before they were granted this patent, their ‘twist’ was already protected. What they’ve done, people are arguing, is that the ideas that belong to the community of people who have worked together to develop those ideas… and that should never be patented… as it doesn’t really belong to anyone. Kinda like gravity or calculus.
That’s why, in a nutshell, i think people are so mad about this patent.

(those of you who understand this better (and those who just think you do 🙂 ) please feel free to add corrections…

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

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