Monday, October 09, 2006

GIF is Dead!

(This one's gonna be a little bit political I fear. More scenery-related stuff in a few days!)

The last software patent on GIF expired October 1st 2006. It's very rare that I agree with Richard Stallman on much, but I think he presents some strong arguments against software patents in this speech.

X-Plane never used GIF; we've used PNG as our main graphics format for a while's a history of PNG's development, relating to the problem with GIF being patented.

A few comments of my own:
  • One problem with software patents is the "landmine" effect. There's no way to know as a programmer when we've violated a software patent. (Try searching the patent database for an hour or so and I think you will agree with me on this.)
  • The bar for non-obvious patents is completely miscalibrated. Software engineering is all about building black boxes out of past work and rearranging them to do new things. Allowing the arrangement of past technologies to be patentable is like allowing a mason to patent a particular stacking of bricks; to most masons it should be obvious how to stack bricks for a certain job, and any good programmer should know how to generalize past ideas to solve new problems. This isn't invention, it's implementation!
  • Patents aren't based on natural law and human rights, they're based on fostering creativity. To this end patents are the exact wrong solution for software, where having basic interoperable technologies be free and cheap is good for common infrastructure. Software patents are like someone being able to charge a toll for driving at exactly 55 miles an hour. We want everyone driving the same speed because it's good for the traffic system; similarly we want people to all use the same file formats because it makes all programs more useful.
There are two cases of software patents I can imagine: short-lived ideas that will be obsolete by the time the patent is ever defended; these patents at best serve to help one company beat another over the head with lawyers; I think this is comparable to a SLAPP lawsuit.

The other case is when the idea is truly useful for its entire lifetime (see GIF, which became the only way to put transparent graphics on the web for a while). In this case the result is a stifling of interoperability and innovation and the patent is to the detriment of the industry and all of its users.

To this end I see libpng as a perfect success: a well-designed file format that's free of patents implemented in an easy-to-use high performance library that's free (X11/MIT license). This encourages and makes it easy for everyone to use PNGs which makes all programs work better. Would we be better off if Austin and I had to invent a proprietary image format (with our own inferior compression) because the major formats were patented?

(Would it be feasable to license such a format? I don't think so - see Stallman's comments on the number of components in a software program vs the cost of licensing.)

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