End software patent wars by making it always legal to run code on a general-purpose computer - Richard Stallman

Writing in a special Wired series on patent reform, Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman proposes to limit the harms that patents do to computers, their users, and free/open development by passing a law that says that running software on a general purpose computer doesn't infringe patents. In Stallman's view, this would cut through a lot of the knottier problems in patent reform, including defining "software patents;" the fact that clever patent lawyers can work around any such definition; the risks from the existing pool of patents that won't expire for decades and so on. Stallman points out that surgeons already have a statutory exemption to patent liability -- performing surgery isn't a patent violation, even if the devices and techniques employed in the operation are found to infringe. Stallman sees this as a precedent that can work to solve the problem. Though it seems to me that it might be easier to define "performing surgery" than "operating a general purpose computer."

This approach doesn’t entirely invalidate existing computational idea patents, because they would continue to apply to implementations using special-purpose hardware. This is an advantage because it eliminates an argument against the legal validity of the plan. The U.S. passed a law some years ago shielding surgeons from patent lawsuits, so that even if surgical procedures are patented, surgeons are safe. That provides a precedent for this solution.

Software developers and software users need protection from patents. This is the only legislative solution that would provide full protection for all.

We could then go back to competing or cooperating … without the fear that some stranger will wipe away our work.

Let’s Limit the Effect of Software Patents, Since We Can’t Eliminate Them

(Image: DSC09309, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from 25734428@N06's photostream)


  1. What kind of douche surgeon patents a procedure? I can see them wanting recompense from textbook makers, uni’s or such, as long as it isn’t so much to prevent it’s proliferation, since that would be against their interests too, but a royalty for or license for performing it? C’mon!

  2. So if I made a new filter for Photoshop or some audio editing app or whatever or developed some new app entirely, I could no longer have real patent protection for it because it would be used on a general purpose computer.

    That makes sense.

    1. It would make it easier for you to sell your filter since you would not have to worry about some obvious code being patented and patent vultures.

  3. Yeah, this is not going to happen.

    First, note this fact presented on the website of the patent office:

    “IP-intensive industries accounted for about $5.06 trillion in value
    added, or 34.8% of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), in 2010.
    Merchandise exports of IP-intensive industries totaled $775 billion in
    2010, accounting for 60.7% of total U.S. merchandise exports.”

    Second, note this excerpt of the Fortune 50 list:

    1. Apple
    2. Google
    3. Amazon
    5. IBM
    17. Microsoft

    …and the fact that these companies are centrally focused on creating, patenting, and licensing software.

    Third, note that during the debates, both of the leading candidates for president openly referenced the transformation of the U.S. economy from manufacturing to information. Obama noted that manufacturing jobs are not coming back stateside, and that we should be moving toward more R&D – we should be training more engineers and fewer factory workers. And Romney promised to strengthen the enforcement of IP rights around the world, especially against China.

    Adding up those three facts – we have an economy that’s heavily based on commercializing software, companies that recognize the role of  patents in protecting that software, and a federal government committed to upholding those protections in defense of the economy.

    Against all of that, you have Richard Stallman’s urging a fundamental reversal of a huge segment of the economy, in pursuit of idealistic and unproven notions of the value of free (as in speech) software.

    1. Making all that costly corporate bueraucracy irrelevant and making tens of thousands of skilled lawyers, economists, MBA:s etc and square miles of office space avaliable for new jobs would be a major efficiency boost for the economie! It is almost as good as automation  is for the physical production, market economie for humanities win!

    2. amazon is not centrally focused on creating, patenting, and licensing software, though it has done all 3 on occasion.

      in addition, its not just stallman. any BB reader knows that there are a variety of tech companies starting to speak out about software patents are negatively impacting their business plans and prospects.

  4. Perhaps a better idea would be to reform the patent-granting process so that patents for trivial notions are either not awarded or limited as to what they can pursue for licensing.  Much in the same way that there are limits on punitive damages for medical malpractice in some states.

    That would make more sense than invalidating the whole notion of patents.

  5. There is a concept in copyright law already, “mechanical rights”, that allow you to record a new performance of any song that has already been recorded by the original artist, with only the payment of a standard fee, and not needing to negotiate permission.

    That idea could be expanded to trivial software patents.  That would eliminate court cases except perhaps in cases of actual non-payment.

  6. That would have a pretty interesting effect on Apple. Since their world is curated, they are arguably not general purpose computers.

  7. Alan Turing described a universal calculating engine which could solve any solvable problem given enough time, electricity, and memory tape. This machine was probably not in itself patentable because of prior art from Babbage, Lovelace and others; but it does anticipate all possible programs, and so should serve as prior art for them all.

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