I am using "free software" and "open source" synonym here as most people dont understand the difference, either.
Aftersome recent discussions with Linux users I found that many of them lack many background information of about free software and patents. Many think the question is about Windows or Linux? I don't think so. What's nice about Linux is that you actually have a whole operating system that is mostly free if you use the standard distributions. But generally the ideal of free software is to free the user. Many Linux users tend to believe that the good thing about Linux is that you can get free copies of it, but then they do not care much about what they install then. They often think that it the nice, shiney closed source software does work better because it supports more proprietary codecs.
Free software often has the disadvantage that it tells the user that he can not play some kind of audio/video stream. From the customers perspective this is bad. So a company would not want to present this to their users. Users are expecting things to go smoothly without much hassle. This is because many free software projects do not include support for patented techology like for Quicktime,MP3, MPEG or H.264. One reason is that those are often small projects that can not afford to pay the license fees or they do not want to start to get into trouble with any patents at all – and you can get in trouble with an open source project because you never know what people will do with your code and maybe the core developers are made responsible for a misuse of patent/license rules that another external developer does.
So the best way for the freedom of users and developers is to stay away from proprietary software products and patented technology. Many computer game developing companies have switched to the patent free OGG for compressed audio files already. By that way they do not have to pay any royalty fees any more.
I think base idea behind patents was good: They should allow a patent holder top open his knowledge without the feer to be unprotected from those who want to steel the technology and make money while he or she gets bancrupt. the patents also should help getting the knowledge and let others after the death of the inventor use the technology for free.
Our current problem is that progress is increasingly high. The inventions some hundred years ago, as patents were founded where only few compared to our days and they were more unique. Today patents are often registered as ammunition of global fights of multinational companies. And the descriptions are so complicated that even the developers might not understand them. They are often used against competitors. Often it is only a matter of time who will patent an idea first – many are obvious principles.
So for developers especially in software development developing software increasingly means walking on a mine field, never knowing where and when a mine could explode.
This means that development can either only be made by big companies who have enough patent ammunition or simple developers to take a high risk and pay for the end of their own lives.
So patent-freenes is one of the basis of "real" free software. The other important question is: Why at all should software be free / open source? The answer is that this frees the user and the developers and helps making progress in development. I will post some more in another article. This one will grow too large. 😉