Defensive Publications

Software patents are an evil thing which should die a horrible and painful death. Until that moment, recording prior art in a way that is understood by the system is an effective way to fight patents. By recording prior art in the form of defensive publications, we can make it much harder for a patent to be granted — and it does not have to be hard at all to do so.

Yesterday at FISL, I attended a panel on software patents in Brazil, the discussion revolved around the why and why nots. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of good reasons why not, and very little pro. It’s an interesting topic, especially since I lately dived a bit deeper into this topic. Softwaree parents were also high on the agenda of this year’s Akademy, which happened last month in Tallinn, Estland. They are legal threats to Free software, so we need to figure out how to deal with them. Let’s first rehash why software patents are a bad thing:

  • Patents are valid for a ridiculously long time. This unrealistic timeframe makes them effectively stifle progress
  • For a casual developer, it’s impossible to know if she or he is infringing on any existing patents
  • Software patents are used in entirely wrong ways: Often patent claims are brought in after a product has shipped successfully, so in order to protect prior investment into research, they’re used as weapons of economic warfare.

So, software patents are bad, really, really bad. Unfortunately they are just as well a reality we will have to deal with for the foreseeable future. Make no mistake, software patents should not exist, they are evil and they should die sooner rather than later. Until then, however, the threat is real and needs mitigation.

The process of creating a software patent is, very roughly: You come up with a new idea, you write it down in a formal way, you register it with a patent office, the patent is reviewed and rejected or granted. One part of this review process is research for prior art. In order to grant a patent, it has to be an original idea, and it must not already exist.

The “must not already exist” is also known as prior art. Prior art must of course be known, so it has to be visible in the public space. Prior art that is useful in the War on Patents is right under the nose of the reviewers at the USPTO (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office), for example. In order to prevent patents from being registered, having as many technologies, ideas and concepts as possible registered as prior art is an effective way to fight the system with its own weapons.

The Open Invention Network sent us three smart people to Akademy, which was really useful. Apart from being cool folks, the OIN’ers also presented us a relatively easy way to record prior art as “Defensive Publication” and feed it into the system so it will be found, considered, and lead to rejection of similar patent applications. The nice thing here is creating a defensive publication is a lot less work than applying for a patent, it is in fact very well doable for an individual developer. A typical defensive publication fits on one page, has a few paragraphs of text with a generally applicable explanation of the idea and preferably a diagram or graphic that makes it easier to understand it. The key here is that it should be easy to understand for an alien to the specific technology (but technically savvy person nevertheless) to understand and find back in the case a related patent application ends up on the table.

There’s a few pleasant catches to this whole thing:

  • The process is lightweight, with a bit of exercise, writing a defensive publication about a good idea can be done in half an hour
  • The idea you’re recording doesn’t even have to be your idea: You can help a fellow developer by recording his work in this form. As you don’t derive any kind of license or copyright to the actual work by writing the defensive publication, the work can be spread.
  • The idea does not need to have been already implemented. Just being able to prove “somebody has already come up with that!” is enough, so even (consistent) brainfarts are eligible

By now, you might already get why I’m writing this: In order to effectively fight the war on patents, we need more people to write these defensive publications. As it’s quite easy to do and we have people who help us in this, I’d like to encourage you all to record prior art we’ve created.

Update: I’ve uploaded an example defensive publication of prior art about Plasma’s Activities, find it here.

FISL13: Civil Rights and Plasma Quick

After a nice stroll through downtown Porto Alegre with a few fellow Free software activists from Spain, Mexica, Peru and Argentina, today was the first day of FISL13, and it was amazing. My usually screwed up biorythm in this part of the world means that I get up at a reasonable (for a conference visit) time in the morning, enough to have a relaxed shower, a bit of emailing, breakfast and still be on time for a fully packed conference day. FISL’s first day was amazing, it started off by meeting a few well known faces (Sandro, Filipe, Isabel, Knuth, I’m talking to you!), and getting to know a lot of new ones. Especially the Brazilian KDE community is really awesome (I knew that, but doesn’t hurt to mention it nevertheless). I also went by SOLAR, the Argentinian Free software organisation who offered me a nice cup of Mate tea, and an opportunity to share some ideas by means of an interview.

After a bit of booth-crawling, I went to attend two talks, which were both really excellent: The first was by Seth Schoen, who is with the Electronic Frontiers Foundation (EFF). Seth talked about privacy and data security at the United States Border. I’m sure anybody who has travelled to the U.S. in the past 10 years can relate to that. Seth explained how the border control is organised, what your right are (at the border, your normal civil rights are actually limited, so searching your luggage or detaining you for questioning can be done without good reason, unlike “in the streets”, so it’s very good to know what they can and can’t do), and how you can protect yourself in case you *DO* have something to hide (or rather, how you carry private information on digital devices across the border). There are a few methods, one is: wipe your device, do a clean install and download the interesting data only after you crossed the border, more sophisticated tricks involve temporarily encrypting your device with a key you don’t know and only get after you’ve passed through border control. Lots of interesting information there, and it makes me more comfortable when travelling to the U.S. the next time. Also, chapeau to the EFF for their protection of privacy and civil rights in general. The talk was excellently held, really interesting and absolutely worth my time.

Next up was Rick Falkvinge, one of the founders of the first Pirate Party (in Sweden). Rick talked about the history of copyright, how people who gain power all of a sudden “kick away the ladder” to secure their position, and how, in more general the Internet changes society. Another excellent talk that felt like it was really worth the time spent. Interestingly, these days, the Brazilian branch of the Pirate Party is being founded, so it’s very much a historical thing happening here. Excited to witness that.

Later in the afternoon, Daker Fernandes Pinheiro of Plasma Qt Quick Components fame and me did a workshop teaching everything you need to know to get started writing device-adaptive applications using Plasma. The workshop was well-attended, I think well prepared as well and people seemed to like it (even if we flooded everybody with a lot of information). It was quite practical, luckily Daker and me hit the right audience, so I think even if it was quite heavy on information, it’s still manageable. After a good two and a half hours where we taught the basics of Qt Quick, Plasma Quick, and how to write Plasma Components and Apps, it was evident on the faces of our audience (and judging by their questions) that people enjoyed our sharing of knowledge, and who knows, maybe a few of the attendants will join our team and become new KDE hackers. As promised, I’ve put the slides online. They provide a good overview of the technologies involved, so are probably quite useful as reading material. Of course, as sharing is good, let me know if you would like to reuse them in part or as a whole, and I’ll send you the sources (including a bit of example code). I myself enjoyed “teaching” as well. Especially Plasmate, our one-stop-shop workflow-driven Plasma IDE resonated really well with the audience, just in time for the end of this summer’s 1.0 release.

Overall, I’m really exhilerated by FISL so far. People are more than welcoming, so it immediately feels “at home” (at 12.000km away from it!), I’ve had really interesting and inspiring conversations, and everything is really well organised. I’m now at my hotel (one that focuses on sustainability, it’s really nice, well done FISL peeps!), we’ll go for churrasco in a bit and then off to the first night’s party.

My talk on “Freeing the Device Spectrum” will be on Friday, at 11.00 o’clock in the GNU hall (that’s the big auditorium). It’s targeted at a general audience, so a lot less technical than the workshop we did today. Be there, or be square!

Back in Brazil

I got up rather early this morning to catch a flight from Amsterdam across the ocean (and equator) down to Brazil, where on Wednesday FISL (Forum Internacional Software Libre) will start. Right now, I’m temporarily stranded in a bar at Sao Paulo airport, waiting for my connecting flight to Porto Alegre where FISL will take place.

Already a few years back, I heard that FISL is one of the pearls among international Free software events, and this year, fate (impersonated by the FISL organizers) invited me to speak at FISL, a wonderful opportunity. Doing bit of research, FISL is an order of magnitude bigger than European events, which due to geographical proximity are a bit more often on my agenda, so I’m quite excited to celebrate this Planet’s biggest community-driven Free software event, and I’m honoured that I will get the opportunity to present our ideas, work and progress on Freeing the Device spectrum to the audience (mark down “Friday, 27th, 11.00h, auditorium” in your agendas!).

Brazil has a special place in my heart, I’ve been working together for a few years with many awesome Brazilian hackers and contributors, I’ve had the opportunity to visit this huge country earlier (when I keynoted at OpenBossa conference in 2009 in Recife) which I’ve fond memories of. I’m glad I’m back now. (Although it’s not quite so real yet, airports are quite the same everywhere.) I’ll arrive at my hotel in Porto Alegre quite late tonight, will hopefully get a good night of sleep to counter the jetlag, and a day tomorrow to acclimatize and possibly visit the city.

On Wednesday, Daker Pinheiro and me will be running a workshop about developing apps for the device spectrum using KDE technologies. For this workshop, no prior knowledge of Qt or KDE technologies will be required, we hope to be able to get you going with the basic steps and concepts during that workshop, so that attendees get a kickstart and can continue this fun adventure when they’re back home, supported by our many online support channels (docs, email, IRC, wiki, read-the-source-luke, etc…)

The weather back home in the Netherlands has been mostly aweful, quite a crap summer indeed. Let’s see if Southern Brazilian winter beats this year’s Dutch summer…