Thursday, June 28, 2012

Let's Sue Our Way to the Top

How come Apple, Google, Microsoft, Oracle, IBM and other large technology companies continue to litigate over software and product copyrights and patents?  Many of the suits are over what was supposed to be open, shared, free and new industry standard software.   I'm talking about software like Java, PDF, Android and others.  The problem occurs when a for profit company develops a new piece of software, middleware, architecture or hardware they are pushing as a new industry standard.  They publish the software and/or hardware specifications, the API's, development tools and everything else needed to make the new widget an industry standard. They encourage and tell everyone to freely use the new stuff.  Problem is they often keep a little something secret, exclude some part of the product or code from the "use freely" agreement or try to change their mind when a competitor finds a way to turn a profit.  Other suits are based on vague and undefined concepts or very minor changes to established concepts and products.

If a company or individual writes unique software that solves a problem they should be able to copyright those unique parts if they want to.  Parts of Windows, OSX, iOS, Oracle DBMS, SAP, security products, iPhone and Android apps meet that criteria.  I'm talking about probably relatively little code.  Only that which is directly related to making the product unique.

Likewise if a company comes up with a truly unique product they can get a patent. Something vague and generic such as a touchscreen or a rectangle phone does not qualify.

Lately Apple has been leading the pack on suing competitors although Oracle has been active too.  Both companies have vast stores of money in the bank.  They can afford to hire a gaggle of lawyers and pay for multiple actions and appeals.  Apparently they have trouble hiring talented technology professionals to come up with innovative products that can compete in an open market.  Luckily one of Oracle's suits about Java was against Google, a company with an even bigger stash of cash.  So far Google has prevailed and Java is still free to be used by everyone.  Expect several appeals.  

I've written, re-written, patched, fixed and revised hundreds of pieces of software during my career.  A few application solutions but most of it operating system add-ons, extensions, utilities and fixes.  I would bet that only a third of the code I wrote actually addressed the problem I was trying to accomplish.  The first third is setting up addressing and environment.  The last third is wrap-up and housekeeping.  Only the middle third of the code actually did, undid or fixed what I set out to do.  Everybody else also basically wrote the same first and last lines of code.  Sometimes the middle stuff was only a couple of lines, sometimes it was several pages of code, on rare occasion it was a full blown application.  Often it too was just slightly reworked code written or borrowed before.

I never wrote the next must have application nor did I strive to.  I was an operating system guy.   I did see my fingerprints on code now and then, I know Xerox distributed my solution to drive their printers on IBM/JES2 mainframes.  I think Xerox gave my company a very slight price break on support.  We were more apt to share our software among other folks doing the same job.  Our main professional organization was named SHARE.

That spirit has continued in the Unix, Linux and Open Systems world.  It's possible to run a completely free operating system (Linux) with free utilities and add-ons and office/productivity applications (LibreOffice).  If you have the time and talent you contribute to the community.

Many corporations won't go the "free" route because there isn't a local sales rep who picks up the lunch or happy hour tab or has tickets to the sporting events.  The other excuse is lack of a 24/7 instant support staff.  Still there are support companies available for a price.
In 1971, at an early meeting at Xerox PARC, Alan Kay coined a quote:

    "The best way to predict the future is to invent it".

  Today, more than 40 years later, Alan Kay spoke at the Alan Turing Centenary Celebration, where he revised his famous quote to address the current litigious state of the computer industry:

     "The best way to predict the future is to prevent it".

Let's innovate more and litigate less.  

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