Article from Issue 54/2005

Many have begun to wonder whether the dark predictions regarding Linux patent infringement reflect a real danger, or whether the patent doomsday talk is intended primarily as a means for raising public awareness. The answer is that no one knows for sure – and the reason no one knows is perhaps the most unsettling part of the story. It was announced recently that Linux may infringe on as many as 283 patents. If you followed the story, you’ll recall that few details emerged as to which parts of Linux infringe on which patents. The reason for this lack of information is that, strangely, the more you know about patents, the more they can hurt you. US patent law imposes harsher penalties on those who violate patents knowingly than on those who violate without specific knowledge of the infringement. In other words, if you use or distribute Linux, you’d better avoid any specific knowledge of specific patent violations.

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    Patent law is a very imperfect tool for establishing moral culpability. Whether you favor patents or not, it is important to face the fact that patent law is a construct of the business world. Patents protect opportunities for patent holders and restrict opportunities for others – all for some supposedly greater purpose, we are told, but in any case, none of this ever has the clarity that will allow you to point your finger at a violator as you would at someone who stole your car. So I don’t have a lot of faith in patents, but I still have a feeling you’ll do better in life if you come up with your own solutions.

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