This patent could have big repercussions for data storage encryption

by Don Sharpe
Don Sharpe
Don Sharpe
Don has been writing professionally for over 10 years now, but his passion for the written word started back in his elementary school days. His work has been... read more
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Microsoft has been granted a controversial patent on data compression technology that could put open-source software at risk.

However, the technology’s inventor fears his creation will become less useful after Microsoft was given the rights to its design.

Software patents raise a lot of hackles because they seem like abstractions. The patent office is supposed to require that a patent be “novel, useful and non-obvious”. But what can be novel about software?

Patents have a long history of hurdles

Patents are an odd thing to get worked up about. They are one of the few types of government-enforced monopolies that people are ok with. 

It is generally accepted that patents provide an incentive for innovation and that the occasional case of patent aggression is worth tolerating.

According to Microsoft,

This rANS variant is [for example] used in JPEG XL, which is practically finished (frozen bitstream) and [is] gaining support, It provides ~3x better compression than JPEG at similar computational cost, compatibility with JPEG, progressive decoding, missing features like HDR, alpha, lossless, animations. There is a large team, mostly from Google, behind it. After nearly 30 years, it should finally replace the 1992 JPEG for photos and images, starting with Chrome, Android.

The problem is that there’s no standard terminology for software patents. A patent doesn’t necessarily reflect the developer experience of “inventing” something new, but instead usually reflects the idea of implementing an existing concept in a new way. 

In other words, if you’re doing something new, your project could fall under another company’s patent without you even knowing about it.

Also, given Microsoft’s history with patents,

Microsoft has a long history of patent aggression against FOSS; it was not too long ago that they were shaking down Linux users and Android distributors over patents, and we would expect more shakedowns to come on this and other patents.

What are your thoughts about patents in software? Let us know in the comment section below.