What is the greatest obstacle that the software patent Abolitionist movement faces? Is it the patent trolls, the governments for sale, the lobbyists, the patent lawyers, the Microsofts of this world?
Everyone understands why Microsoft seeks patents and invests richly to keep the system going. Everyone understands the motives of patent lawyers, of patent trolls. Everyone understands that people who's business depends on patents would be bitterly opposed to abolition.
In 2003 I wrote that the software industry was splitting into those who understood the future, and those stuck in the past. The rift between these two sides seems huge today.
Yet why are firms like IBM, Sun, Google, and Red Hat investing in software and business method patents, when the ethical and economic arguments clearly show that such patents can help the owner only at a cost to all society.
More to the point, why are these firms, which depend on the goodwill of the FOSS community, silent on the subject. Silent on the patents they own. Silent on the real threats to Linux and FOSS applications1
For me, the greatest threat to the Abolitionist movement is not the "bad guys" who wear black hats and do stupid things like suing RIM, or TomTom. It is the "good guys", who silently collect patents, allow the Community to be scared into accepting that these "defensive" patents are necessary, and who keep a blanket of silence over the public discussion of software patent abolition.
And those who allow this, from the best motives, are part of the conspiracy. Those who invest in projects like Peer-to-Patent are part of the conspiracy. Those who write how OIN is a great achievement, how various "promises not to sue" are sufficient to waive all concern… it is these good willed people who are the problem.
The work - and greatest success - of the FFII has been to bring the issue of software patents into the public mind but it is an uphill struggle. Everywhere, people prefer not to confront this. They see Abolition as an overtly political issue. An extremist, uncomfortable issue that is bad for business at best, and suicidally stupid at worst.
In 2009, despite wide-spread understanding of the problems software patents cause, Abolition is still not on the political agenda. The large FOSS firms continue to invest in software patents and ignore opportunities for political reform. When opportunities do present themselves, these firms try to stop "business method patents" but not software patents.
Why is this? I think it is because these firms are deeply tied into the software patent system: they profit from it, and they enjoy the silence that allows them to build large "defensive" patent portfolios. There is also an element of elitism. The large firms, with their portfolios, can dominate the market and define the rules. They can absorb the pain of trolls. Mosquitoes. They can develop the patents into profitable licensing models. We are seeing the emergence of a new kind of open source, properly patented for its own protection. It may be Open, but it is not Free.
It is time to end the conspiracy of silence and force the discussion on the ethics of patenting software and business methods. No matter if this hurts firms who have invested in FOSS. No matter if this creates division and no matter if it is "bad for business".