Apple v. Samsung: A patent battle with freedom as the collateral damage
Since Samsung was found liable for infringing some of Apple's mobile patents[PDF] on August 24th, 2012, there has been widespread anger directed at Apple. Many people rightly note that Apple's strong-arming of Samsung harms free software users everywhere and mobile users in particular. Phones and tablets could be banned from the market, and there will certainly be a chilling effect on free software development in the area. Apple's victory here is our collective loss, as the ruling magnifies the damaging effects of Apple's proprietary systems.
Using software patents as a weapon, Apple is restricting mobile devices that eschew its escalating systems of digital restrictions management. Apple is also effectively trying to lock users into devices that cannot easily install free software, trapping them within its App Store which does not permit the distribution of GPL licensed works. This ruling will also help block replacements for Apple's iPad being distributed to students, a disastrous consequence for educators.
The damage from this ruling, however, goes beyond the realm of mobile devices. The software patents involved could potentially dominate a large swath of free software. Even prior to this verdict, free software projects like GNUstep were so threatened by the specter of such patents that they were not able to accept contributions related to multi-touch. Apple v. Samsung crystallizes the threat that software patents already pose to everyone, everywhere. The problems with the patent system, such as absurdities like patents on "pinch to zoom," will persist as long as the Patent Office is allowed to grant software patents.
Google (via Motorola) recently filed a suit against Apple[PDF] as a defensive response to Apple's actions, which will also have disastrous consequences for everyone else involved. Many people are hopeful that these ridiculous lawsuits will be so damaging as to cause a "software patent apocalypse"; that they will somehow force change to the patent system merely by their destructiveness. While we can hope that change could result, the problem is that we have no way of knowing what direction that change would take. Current congressional responses to patent dysfunction, like the Shield Act, show that while representatives are starting to understand that the system is broken, they do not see the right way to fix it.
Instead of waiting on a possible "apocalypse," we need to take action now to end software patents:
- Please join us in our campaign against software patents at http://news.swpat.org/. You should also join the campaign mailing list to stay up-to-date.
- Help stop software patents from being forced onto Europe by the European Patent Office by joining April's action against software patents.
- Check out our film on the preposterous state of the patent system: Patent Absurdity: how software patents broke the system.
- For more information on ending software patents, please see our End Software Patents Wiki.
- You can also support our future work against software patents by making a donation to the FSF.