Software Patents. Michael Tiemann is as passionate as ever on the problem of software patents. After talking with him, I think he and I share a lot of common ground. The current worldwide approach to patents is a mess, and is not serving the original purpose of patent law: to give the inventor privileged rights for a limited time in a way that would incentivize innovation. I do not see that patents are, on balance, doing more to encourage innovation than they are to inhibit it right now. Large companies spend an enormous amount in money and dedicated resources to manage their patent portfolios, and for companies that derive relatively little of their revenue from patent royalties, there just isn't a lot of upside.
Does that mean we should move immediately to get rid of software patents? I guess I have two concerns:
* The problem is more than just software patents. I guess I hadn't really thought this through until I started working with Andrew Hessel on his "Open Source Biology" essay for Open Sources 2.0. Thanks to Andrew I see the patent problem as pervasive to the whole world of intellectual research, not just software. I don't think Michael would disagree with this, but thinks that that the software patent challenge is more than enough for him to tackle. The problem is that, if the issues aren't unique to software, then they can't be solved exclusively for software or we're just breaking the system further.
* You still have to solve the innovation problem. Saying that patents don't have a net positive impact on innovation is not the same as saying they have no impact. Patents are an incentive system for innovation. If you are going to remove this system, you have to propose another. Frankly, I don't know what the alternative is, and I haven't heard one from Michael. In a way, this cuts to the heart of the difference between Free Software and Open Source. I have never accepted Stallman's argument that Free Software provides a way for developers to be compensated for their work.
Democratization of Data. While everyone is excited about the capabilities that cloud computing might deliver, and about how much of cloud infrastructure will be built on open source, I also heard a lot of concern expressed. The Cloud has the potential that puts one more layer between the user and the open source software on which they are dependent. Already we are giving up our data to so many large corporate entities in exchange for the "services" they provide. The Cloud threatens to institutionalize this as a social norm. From the first PC to open source, open computing has done so much to democratize our participation in the digital world. Personal data looks like the next battle for open computing, and the Cloud may be the battlefield.
Open Source Communication and Education. I was a little taken aback at how many companies and open source projects in Europe complained about the wide gulf between technical decision-making and business decision-making. This was a very common theme at the Open Source Think Tank workshop, for example. Developers bemoan the lack of understanding that customers or their own business executives have about what is possible, what is hard, and what is easy in open source. And business people bemoan the way developers scoff at the business considerations that at times trump technical considerations. Sadly, I don't think this is a uniquely European problem. I've seen both sides of this first hand doing product management for large companies in the U.S.
The silver lining is that this issue really re-affirms for me that the CodePlex Foundation has a place to add value to the open source eco-system. There are a lot of obstacles that put a barrier to wider participation by software companies in open source projects. Some of those obstacles are still as simple as needing more of a shared understanding. That's certainly a place where we at the Foundation can help.