Tuesday 6 July 2010
Mozilla produces the Firefox Web browser, used by more than three hundred
million people around the world. Firefox is open source and is the result of a
collaboration of a large group of paid developers and volunteers. In fact,
Mozilla funds a team of paid developers in New Zealand working on core Firefox
code; some key innovations in Firefox, such as HTML5 video, are the work of our
New Zealand team. The work we do is some of the most highly skilled and
high-impact software development to be found anywhere in the world. I write
about software patents in my personal capacity as one of Mozilla's senior
software developers, and manager of our Auckland-based development team and
also our worldwide layout engine team. I also formerly worked for three years
at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center where I participated in the filing of
several software patents based on my research.
The development and distribution of Firefox, like other open source software,
is threatened by the rise of software patents, because the patent system was
not designed for our environment. In software, especially cutting-edge software
like Firefox, every developer is an inventor; coming up with new ways of doing
things is not exceptional, it's what our developers do every single day.
Invention created at such a rate does not deserve or benefit from years of
monopoly protection. Indeed, it will be crippled if we are forced to play the
patent system "to the hilt", to acquire vast numbers of our own software
patents and to navigate the minefield of other people's patents.
The patent system was designed to promote invention and especially the
disclosure of "trade secrets" so that others can build on them. Research casts
doubt on whether it has succeeded at those goals (see
an example), but even if it did, in software development --- especially
open-source software development --- it is clear that no patent incentive is
needed to encourage innovation and publication of our work. Copyright has long
been adequate protection for both closed-source and open source software.
(Open-source software permits copying, but relies on copyright protection to
enforce terms and conditions on copying.) Indeed, the patent system restricts
the dissemination of our work because the best way to distribute knowledge about
software is in the form of code, and that can make us liable for patent
Software development is uniquely able to have huge impact on the world because
copies can be made available to users for free. If we had charged users for each
copy of Firefox there is no doubt we would not be nearly as successful as we
have been, either at changing the world or even at raising money --- Mozilla
has substantial revenues from "tie-ins" such as search-related advertising.
The patent system threatens this business model, because most patent licensing
arrangements require the licensee to pay a per-unit fee. This is not
necessarily a problem for traditional manufacturing, where there is a per-unit
manufacturing cost that must be recouped anyway, but it completely rules out
a large class of software business models that have been very successful.
As well as developing software, Mozilla does a lot of work to improve Web
standards, and here too we have seen damage from the rise of software patents.
We want to ensure that people can communicate over the Internet, especially
on the Web, without being forced to "pay to play". We especially don't want
any organisation to be able to control what people can do and say on the Web via
their patent portfolio. We're already having problems with Web video because
many popular video encoding techniques are patented so the production,
distribution and playback of Web video often requires patent licensing from
organisations such as the MPEG-LA. This has slowed down the standardization and
improvement of Web video and forces the use of effectively non-free software in many
In summary, the patent system is not suited to software development. Software
development, especially open-source software development, is harmed by patents
and does not need patent protection. Development of the Internet is also
hampered by patents. New Zealand stands to benefit directly and indirectly from
the rise of the Internet and collaborative software development and should
protect these benefits by making a clear statement by rejecting the patentability of "inventions" implemented in software.