Free Software legal battles version 2

“We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”

Steve Jobs, Apple

With the embers of the SCO’s legal shenanigans slowly dieing down we were long overdue for the next round of legal attacks on Free Software. We all knew it was coming, having failed with spurious copyright claims the next tool the enemies of free software would employ would be patents. The opening salvo came from Microsoft when they sued Tom Tom for making their devices interoperable with the worlds most used operating system. It was a short skirmish that ended in a settlement and no clear precedent set, and the usual technical workarounds. However free software advocates knew that bigger patent threats were out there and have been preparing for the next round. The biggest fear would be a patent troll would assert rights over free software that would be hard to defend against with counter suites. As it happens the next enemy of free software is not a troll but the polo-neck wearing lawyers of Cupertino.

Apple is obviously worried by the rise of Google’s Android smart phone operating system and has decided to protect it’s market share by suing the competition for patent infringement. While Apple haven’t invented the smart phone (much like they didn’t invent the MP3 player) they were the company that brought smart phones to the mainstream. It’s obviously an area they wish to monopolise.

Regular readers will be aware of the many problems with patents, especially as they relate to software. Patent’s are meant to be awarded for novel and innovative solutions to problems and give the inventor a limited time to monopolise those inventions in return for making the details public and growing the corpus of human knowledge. Patent’s are routine in areas like biotech where companies get a number of years to sell their drugs at higher prices to recoup the cost of development before the patent expires and everyone can make them. The problem with software patents is they are rarely novel and innovative, they are usually just a codification of commonly used techniques written up in patent language and submitted to the relevant authorities.

Apple have listed 20 patents in their suit. They include such innovations as turning off the camera when power is low. Others are more technical like the concept of using objects to manage graphical elements on a display. Needless to say none of them look especially novel and hopefully most will get invalidated now the legions of free software users that were so instrumental in researching the flaws in the SCO case turn their attention to finding prior art. There is also the possibility the Open Innovation Network will step in and counter-sue with it’s broad range of defencive patents. Unlike a patent troll who has nothing to loose Apple could have it’s injunctions served against shipping products if they (as is likely) infringe.

It will be a few days before all the key players make clear how they are going to respond to Apple’s legal attacks. It’s a fight that is likely to get fairly nasty given the stakes involved. In the meantime any pretence that Apple are a company that is friendly towards free software is should have demolished by their action yesterday.