Melbourne developer Ben Sturmfels (below) is soliciting signatures for the petition which, he says, will be personally delivered to Senator Kim Carr, the minister for innovation, Industry, science and research in the current Labor government.
The petition has been launched at a time when the federal government is reviewing the scope of patent law and Sturmfels says it is the right time to push for abolition of software patents. It also comes at the start of a federal election campaign, with Australia going to the polls on August 21.
Last week, New Zealand announced that it would not be making any changes to its Patents Bill which is moving through parliament. Wellington has decided that inventions which have embedded software can be patented, a stance which was welcomed by the New Zealand Computer Society.
In the petition Sturmfels says he has highlighted the negative effects that software patents have on the software industry and society in general.
"The patent system is meant to benefit society, but allowing software to be patentable has created an expensive and dangerous imbalance. I encourage all members of the software industry to sign this letter," he said in a media release.
Sturmfels says that as a student he attended a talk given by the visionary Richard M. Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and the GNU Project, on the threat of software patents. He now has an additional reason to be wary of software patents as they would be a direct threat to his business and to the businesses of his customers.
"A patent is an essentially an artificial arrangement between an inventor and society to provide the inventor a short-term monopoly (20 years) over an idea in return for disclosing the details of the idea," Sturmfels said.
"This system is designed primarily to benefit society and, contrary to popular belief, not to increase the wealth or power of patent applicant. It's a trade-off, and so it must be carefully weighed-up to ensure society isn't disadvantaged."
He said software, like mathematics, had been traditionally non-patentable. "In the early 90s, Australia began allowing patents. Today, the threat of patent litigation is a constant source of anxiety for the software industry. This anxiety cripples innovation and growth by funnelling research and development budgets into legal fees. As a business owner, software patents scare me."
Sturmfels said the normal approach to writing software was to break down a problem and solve it by combining numerous existing techniques.
"The innovative step is not so much what techniques you use, but what you build with them. Patents work against this approach by marking some techniques off-limits. There's a catch though, it's nearly impossible to tell what's off limits until you receive a letter of demand from a patent holder. Both those who write and those who use software are at risk."
He found New Zealand's move very encouraging. "I hope Australian software developers will support this letter and help us follow New Zealand's lead."