Centre for Internet & Society

A global coalition of more than 80 software companies, associations and developers has declared the 24th of September to be the "World Day Against Software Patents". The Hindu, a national daily dedicated one page of its Bangalore edition to software patents and software freedom. Deepa Kurup contributed written two articles titled "Will patenting take the byte out of IT here?" and "How would it be if you read only one type of book?" which reflects some of the concerns of the Free/Libre/Open Source Software community.

Will patenting take the byte out of IT here? [link]

Deepa Kurup

There has been little debate on patent laws and the software industry. Today is World Day Against Software Patents.

IT software, services and outsourcing industry has been rooting for software patenting
Delhi Patent Office receives around 50 applications for software patents every month

BANGALORE: Picture this. Indian mathematicians came up with the concept of the “zero” — often touted as India’s greatest contribution to civilisation — and got a patent for it. By now they would have raked in inestimable amounts in royalty. Seems preposterous? Members of the Free Software community say that patenting every other algorithm would be somewhat in the same league.

While there has been substantial discussion on how patents will affect the pharmaceutical sector, there has been little debate about its implications on the software industry. To the layman, software patenting sounds like an abstract issue applicable to an even more abstract domain. However, with a growing software industry which is trying to spread its indigenous roots, the issue becomes an important one.

Traditionally, software comes under the Copyright Law (just like any literary work) and anyone who writes a program owns it. After Indian Parliament in 2005 scrapped an ordinance which declared “software in combination with hardware” patentable, the controversial and ambiguous clause — “software per se” — has now resurfaced in a recently formulated Patent Manual.

And how will the common man be affected by this proposed change in the patent manual? For example, when Global Patent Holdings patented usage of images on websites, a bunch of small and big companies had to cough up to $50 million each. And where does this cost reflect? “The consumer will find that products will get a lot more expensive. Take a DVD player which has about 2,000 patents (many of them software-related). Every time a local company makes a DVD player, they have to pay royalties and the costs will naturally be reflected on the sale price,” says Sunil Abraham of Centre for Internet and Society, a research and advocacy organisation.
Backdoor entry

The Free Software community feels that patents will make a backdoor entry, courtesy this manual and that ongoing public consultation (by the Patent Office) does not take their voices into account. Mr. Abraham says: “We feel that the powerful software lobbies around are pushing for this clause. If allowed, it will affect the basis of innovation, and will in turn affect the industry.” While the Bangalore consultation was “postponed indefinitely,” the Patent Office in its Delhi meeting said this issue called for an “exclusive meeting with the software industry.”

The powerful IT software, services and outsourcing industry has been rooting for software patenting. Under the guile of the seemingly innocuous clause in the Indian Patent Bill 2005, software companies and the MNC lobby is trying to carve out a slice for the specific “software embedded with hardware” industry saying that it will increase the value of indigenous home-grown software, pump up software exports and thereby rake in greater revenue.

However, the other side of the story is worth telling. Software, per se, is simply a set of instructions to carry out a certain process. Software experts put forth the argument that big corporations — with money, muscle and hired talent — will seek to impose patents along the software value chain, starting from source code to the recent demand for “embedded software.”

Sources in the Delhi Patent Office say that they receive around 50 applications for software patents every month. In the U.S. 25,000 patents are granted every year. In a software-driven world, blurring the lines between software and software “per se” could be risky. “Patenting is an expensive and tedious process. The challenge for every programmer would be to verify each time, to see if any two lines of his code would infringe upon a patent. In the U.S., a single verification can cost as much as $5,000. The fundamental issue is that if I arrive at anything independently, should I not use it only because someone had got it patented before me?” asks a senior official at Red Hat, an open source service provider.

A paper written by members of the Alternative Law Forum (ALF), the case against software patenting is presented as a very basic one. “Software evolves much faster than other industries, even with its own hardware industry. Microprocessors double in speed every two years. So, a patent that lasts up to 17 years (minimum period -15) is alarming. In this field, the idea underlying may remain the same but a product has to be replaced on an average of every two years,” it states. The paper also points out that in software “research costs are little because ideas are as abundant as air.”

Prashant Iyengar of ALF feels that patent laws will effectively curtail innovation, like it has done in the U.S. “Software, unlike other industries in India, is end-driven but is also on a “body shopping” model. Given that, a strong start-up company will be either be shut down or bought over if patent laws come in,” he explains.

How would it be if you read only one type of book? [link]

Deepa Kurup

Little or no attention is paid to what is being taught in schools and colleges

BANGALORE: A computer literacy programme in a public sector organisation teaches the following modules: MS Office, MS Power Point, MS Excelsheet and Internet Explorer. A glance through the “computer syllabus” in most schools, and the list is similar. All items on this checklist have one thing in common: proprietary software. So, if every computer user is being taught exclusively on proprietary platforms, would they ever be comfortable switching to the easier, cheaper and readily available alternatives?

Advocates of Free Software — software which can be used, studied and distributed without restriction — say that this is a ploy by proprietors to turn learners into potential customers. They allege that educational systems and the State are in cahoots with these large corporations which insist that children and learning adults be taught to only follow their system.

In a recent meeting with a State Government official about the use of Free Software on e-governance platforms, the official complained that none of his officials knew how to use it or repair it if things went wrong.

“This takes you to the root of the problem,” says Sunil Abraham of Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore. “Students are taught to use only proprietary software. The Government is subsidising training in proprietary technology and little or no attention is paid to what is being taught in schools and colleges,” he explains.

The “back-office” tag that our IT industry has learnt to live with is also a product of this malaise, experts point out. “When students learn only proprietary software, they will qualify only as computer operators and never learn about using the nuts and bolts of the profession. This is one of the reasons why there are no innovative products that come out of this country,” says Mr. Abraham.
Simple analogy

A simple analogy would be that of a child taking up reading as a habit. If a child reads a lot of books, they say, they learn to write and express better. Academics feel that in the absence of any familiarity with Free Software, where the source is easily available, engineering students and computer graduates never get to read any code and are thus hardly familiar with the languages.

FOSS supporters have written to the Ministry of Human Resource Development and several universities to point this out. Anivar Aravind, a member of Free Software Users Group, says that the progress so far has been staggered. Recently, CDAC and Anna Univeristy (KB Chandrashekar Research Centre) came up with a Free Software syllabus and offers trained to teachers in engineering colleges.
Cost factor

A study by International Open Source Network (an UNDP initiative) study on FOSS and education states that using open source software could reduce the costs involved in ICT education significantly. In a country like ours, this fact that Open Source Software usually involves low or no cost would be perceived as an important step towards reducing the digital divide. With no licensing fee, they can be made available on CD or downloaded.