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05 November 2012, 15:12

Richard Stallman seeks to limit the scope of software patents

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In an opinion piece for Wired, Richard Stallman has proposed an approach to change the US patent system in a way that, he believes, would make software patents (or "computational idea patents", as he calls them) less of an issue for developers of free and open source software.

According to the founder of the Free Software Foundation, changing the scope of the patentability of ideas, as is often suggested by patent reformers, would not yield satisfactory results. He is of the opinion that such a change would only lead to lawyers reframing patent applications to work with the new regulations. Stallman also says that due to the large number of software patents already in effect, it would take close to 20 years for the change to show effect since "legislating the abolition of these existing patents is probably unconstitutional."

Stallman's solution for a patent reform is not to change the way patents are granted, but to limit their scope: "My suggestion is to change the effect of patents. We should legislate that developing, distributing, or running a program on generally used computing hardware does not constitute patent infringement." Changing the scope of the patent system in this way would also effect existent patents and would not require legislators and inventors to differentiate between software and non-software patents. Stallman is also of the opinion that patent lawyers could not defeat the approach by changing the way they write patent applications.

In his article, Stallman does not clearly specify what exactly constitutes "generally used computing hardware" and how it would be determined to be distinct from "special-purpose hardware" which would still fall under patent protection. It is also not explained how the current battleground of lawyers, judges and law-makers arguing over how much and what kind of code can be patented would not simply shift to disagreements of what exactly constitutes "generally used computing hardware".


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