20100108

Picasa for Linux, Multi-touch, and Software Patents in General

I should state this clearly at the beginning of my post, just so I don't come off the wrong way. I do appreciate everything that Google has done and how they have contributed back to open-source software. The same is for Apple - I am grateful that Apple helped to revolutionize the user experience and to inject a fusion of art and technology in their designs. However, there are some issues (mainly revolving around the concept of software patents) that prevent many wonderful, Google-created applications from being wonderful on Linux.

Three examples come directly to mind:

1) Picasa for Linux: does not support viewing or uploading of video files.
2) Android: does not have a 'playmp3' binary when built from source.
3) Android: does not support mulit-touch (using the commercial ROM). update: Newer Android devices do support Multi-Touch, with open drivers. Thanks Google!

With respect to my first issue (and I'm sure that anyone who has a child and a Cannon point-and-shoot digital camera will agree with me) I make a heck of a lot of videos. In some cases, I make more videos than still photos. Picasa (for Linux) does not support videos at all because many video codecs (although there are free implementations) require royalty payments to be made to some patent holder. Maybe Apple and Microsoft do make these royalty payments, and thus can provide the video codec binaries to applications for their platforms. I can't even use PicasaWeb to upload videos of my toddler, and in that case Google wouldn't even need to redistribute any royalty-encumbered software. There's something wrong with this, but let me address the other two points before beginning my rant.

As for the second issue, I believe its a similar situation. Perhaps Google does make royalty payments to Fraunhofer (the 'owners' of the mp3 format patents), which allows them to distribute a device with an mp3 decoder. I would certainly hope that Fraunhofer provides Google with the code, because if they're just using ffmpeg or lame, then there is definitely something wrong with that situation as well.

Lastly, with respect to the third issue, Apple holds patents for mulit-touch and has requested that Google intentionally cripple the Android UI. I can fully understand that a patent could and should be granted for the physical device that senses multiple points of contact, but as far as Apple having a patent on software to read that device (i.e. the driver) and software to interpret that device for a user-interface, that's just absurd.

What all of these issues have in common, is that they all revolve around the same concept: the patentability of software. Along with 90% of the world, I do not believe that software should be patentable. Typically, a patentable 'device' should be 1) novel, 2) useful, and 3) non-obvious. In at least 50% (but more likely 80 or 90%) of software 'patents', they rarely satisfy any of those three conditions, at least in this day and age.

Historically, patents were introduced in order to encourage innovation. A company bringing a new invention to the world was awarded the patent in order to prevent others from wasting their time trying to come up with the same, patented product. This encouraged competitors to come up with different or better inventions. A company awarded a patent was therefore awarded adequately for their hard work, with their physical design being preserved for a limited time. After that limited time, competitors could begin to offer similar inventions on the market. Seems pretty fair to me.

However, software (in the truly scientific sense of the word) is math. Math is a collection of ideas. Patenting ideas has never officially been supported by any patent system. I really think that the only law that should apply to software is that of trade-secret and copyright. Surely, if one company copies the software of another and pawns it off as their own, then that is illegal.

On the other hand, if another entity can legitimately show that the software (be it a signal processing algorithm or device driver) had been cleanly reverse engineered, then that other entity should legally be allowed to sell or redistribute their version of the software, especially if it more adequately suits some population of recipients or users (i.e. if it fixes bugs, works faster, etc). In the same sense, I don't consider it a crime to decipher encrypted transmissions.

I find it tragic that authors of free software are not allowed to distribute their work, and help others, because the patentability of software is accepted in 2 countries on earth. I do believe that physical things should be patentable if they are novel, unique, and non-obvious, but I don't believe that inquisitive minds should be limited.

1 comment:

Christopher Friedt said...

I just wanted to send a big thumbs-up to Google for doing what nobody has done to date aside from Apple - finally adding the multi-touch drivers for Nexus One users.

Will we see the same drivers start to appear for official G1 firmware updates ? Only time will tell.