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FOSS dev's campaign against software patents moves ahead

When it comes to software patents, Melbourne developer Ben Sturmfels is sure of one thing: his campaign to end them in their entirety will succeed in the long run.

But he is also equally sure that there is a very long road to be traversed before this objective is achieved.

Sturmfels (pictured below) has made some progress in his campaign, one which began with the collection of signatures last year to submit to federal parliament.

Though he is a free software advocate, Sturmfels campaign against software patents extends to all genres of software. Patents can affect proprietary software as much as they do free and open source software, he pointed out when I met him recently.

In February, Sturmfels' petition was accepted by the government's Petitions Committee, in three batches. "Collecting 1000 signatures on paper is a hard task and a huge one in terms of the amount of paper needed," he said with a grin.

The signatures were presented to the House on February 21 and 28, and May 28.

Ben SturmfelsSturmfels and much of the rest of the computer industry was unaware of the response period for a review of patentable subject matter done by the Advisory Council for Intellectual Property last year.

But, acknowledging this, a late submission was allowed and the views of software developers were acknowledged in the ACIP report thus:

"A recent petition to the Minister signed by members of the computer software industry argued that patents are not necessary to encourage innovation in their industry, that the term of a patent (20 years) is too long, and that the cost involved (in avoiding infringing patents, and defending against patent lawsuits) is not viable, particularly for small to medium-sized businesses."

Following this, Sturmfels was recently invited to testify before a House committee consisting of five MPs. The hearing was held in Melbourne.

"Software patents are not exactly a sexy issue," Sturmfels said. "I wanted to raise community awareness and to make our parliamentarians aware of exactly how much they inhibit small businesses like mine."

The fact that the MPs gave him a half-hour of their time means that the issue is now recorded in official parliamentary proceedings. Whether anything happens after this depends on how skilfully Sturmfels lobbies people and continues to push the issue. What's important is that a start has been made.

He plans to speak to people in New Zealand to find out how lobbying was done to effect a law that is now waiting to be passed, a law whereby there will be no software patents allowed in the country.

Sturmfels is aware of the pressure that can be brought to bear by the US in this area; the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, a pact between nine countries including Australia and New Zealand, includes specific text about patents, text that will ensure that American multinationals can extract their pound of flesh from Australia using so-called intellectual property as the means to an end.

But he is in it for the long haul and believes that once the harm that software patents can do to the economy and, thus, the ordinary Australian, is demonstrated, parliamentarians will have no option but to do what is in the public interest.



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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.


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