Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The 'Patent Absurdity' movie: well-meant but ineffectual

Several of the people with whom I fought against a proposed European law on software patents a few years back have recently mentioned the new "Patent Absurdity" movie, a 30-minute production trying to make the case against software patents for a broader audience. So I took a look. My take: it's certainly well-meant and was probably done under severe budget constraints, but it's not going to change anything for the better, not even on a very small scale.

Web 2.0 campaigning

I regret having to say so because in recent years I saw videos on YouTube covering other information society causes. They were also low-budget and struggled to project complex, abstract issues onto the screen, but some of them seemed more effective than this one. Whenever I saw those, I felt that anti-software-patent activism had failed to embrace Web 2.0 techniques. When I did my campaign, we didn't have YouTube (it was just founded when the EU process on software patents was already in the home stretch) nor Twitter (founded years later). We clearly operated in a Web 1.0 world.

About a year ago there was a demonstration in Munich against patents on animals and plants (euphemistically labeled "biotechnological inventions") and Richard Stallman gave a speech, translated to German by Hartmut Pilch, trying hard to make the case that software patents are just as undesirable as animal and plant patents and that even farmers should care about them. The speech was filmed and uploaded to YouTube (part 1, part 2). While I'm not sure the farmers really ended up caring about software patents as much as about patents affecting their own trade, that recorded speech is actually a better piece of video against software patents than "Patent Absurdity". Especially if one added the animation at the end of "Patent Absurdity" (showing a musical composition falling apart due to patents) to that video. That final part is far better than the rest of "Patent Absurdity".

Trying to achieve the impossible

The biggest problem of the "Patent Absurdity" project is that the makers of the movie tried to achieve the impossible: to explain the issue of software patents to a broader audience in an understandable, convincing format.

I have my own experience with that and it's sobering. When fighting against a proposal for European software patent legislation, we had to try to explain the issue to politicians all the time. Of all the politicians I met, only one had a computer science degree and professional experience in that field (Ulrich Kelber, now a vice chairman of the social democratic group in the German federal parliament). I never even tried to get an appointment with Angela Merkel, now the German federal chancellor. It is known that she, a scientist, did a certain amount of programming in the 1980s. But the largest professional group among politicians are definitely lawyers (and 99% of their advisers), probably followed by teachers, and I think there are still considerably more farmers among them than programmers.

None of us software patent critics ever managed to make a non-programmer really understand the issue the way we can understand it. It's just not possible. If someone tried to explain to me the beauty of a Chinese poem, how would I, not speaking a word of Chinese, be able to understand? Theoretically I might: if I learned Chinese to fluency (an effort that would take years) and then looked at the poem and got an explanation. With software patents it's quite similar.

Abolitionism and line-drawing

In order to do away with software patents, there would be two political approaches. One is to demand a far-reaching or even complete abolition of the entire patent system. "Patent Absurdity" contains a couple of statements that can be interpreted as that kind of a demand, and a variety of critical remarks that are not specific to software patents. However, complete abolition is unrealistic. That system is hundreds of years old, influential, and resilient. The average citizen isn't going to support abolitionism because most people still believe (right or wrong) that a patent is fundamentally a good thing.

The other approach is to accept patents in general but to try to exclude software from the scope of patentable subject matter. That's the line-drawing approach. That's exactly what the European Parliament tried to do in the legislative process we had over here, and the Bilski case (the context in which "Patent Absurdity" was made) could result in a US Supreme Court decision to that effect.

Much of "Patent Absurdity" indeed seems to advocate line-drawing, though not very clearly. The makers apparently wanted it to be just about informing people, not about voicing explicit demands. But I believe it's not very realistic in a political context to talk about a problem without proposing a practical solution. By failing to do the latter, "Patent Absurdity" doesn't end up being "all things to all people". It's more like being "nothing to anybody".

A matter of trust

Does it represent a diversity of opinions? Not really.

The two guys in the beginning who defend a software and business method patent don't give real representation to the proponents of those kinds of patents, such as big industry.

Then there are the critics, who get most of the speaking time. Some of those are absolutely sincere critics of software patents: RMS (who has been fighting against them since 1990), Jim Bessen (with whom I was on a discussion panel in Brussels years ago), CiarĂ¡n O'Riordan (whom I saw on a couple of occasions during the fight against software patents; however, I may feel forced to criticize the FSFE's approach to interoperability at some later point in time). I also do have the feeling that Ben Klemens is sincere about his opposition (I read an excerpt from his book "Math You Can't Use"), and of all the lawyers in the movie (some of whom I never met), the one I would place by far and away most trust in is Dan Ravicher. But I can't vouch for anyone else I know in the organizations he works for.

In the movie I spotted a lawyer who tried to keep the European software patent proposal alive when we had already defeated it. I published proof of that a few years ago and it's probably still somewhere on the Internet. Since he doesn't say anything really new in the movie, there's no need to bring up that story from five years ago until he does negative things in the software patent context again. There's also at least one other person who has shown a greater interest in benefitting from the software patent system than in bringing about change.

So what's the point?

I guess they wouldn't even have been able to agree among that kind of group on what they'd like to see happen. But then, what's the point? Education won't work without getting people to learn programming. A proposal for the future or call to action is not made. And why in the world would anyone spend 30 minutes watching a video that is neither exciting nor entertaining, and not even particularly enlightening? I can't see that.

I regret having had to say all of the above and I can only hope that someone else will do something better at some time, maybe with a more realistic goal, maybe with a bigger budget. But realistically, software patents won't go away until the call for abolition is supported by some of the major players in the industry. Theoretically it could also work with small and medium-sized businesses but in my experience that just doesn't work because those SMEs who oppose software patents don't want to spend any significant amount of time and money on it. As long as it looks to politicians like mostly a cause for the FOSS community without major economic interests behind it, it's hard to see how change could be brought about. Watching "Patent Absurdity" just reaffirms that view. Unfortunately.

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