Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Software Patents, Word, and OpenOffice.org

If you've read this space at all over time, you'll know it's no secret that I'm a serious fan of OpenOffice.org, the free alternative to expensive desktop software like Microsoft Office. Recently we've been provided with additional reasons for making the change.

Reason one:
A District Court has issued an injunction banning Microsoft from selling Word in consequence of losing a patent-infringement lawsuit brought by i4i. Read about it at PCWorld.

Now I'm not a fan of software patents at all, and side with Microsoft on this one. Software is already covered by copyright, and it is the expression of an idea, and not the idea itself, that should be protected. Speaking as a programmer, software is not invention, and should not be subject to patents. True, writing and inventing are both creative acts, but they are governed by different rules, regardless of what some greedy opportunists would have you believe.

Imagine, if you will, an author wanting to patent the "mechanism" of a story, in exactly the same way that a software publisher is allowed to patent a "mechanism" described by a program. Here the plot device is "the butler did it," and some schmuck at the patent office screws up royally and says, "OK, here's your patent." Great for the author, since now he can sue everybody who uses "his" plot device, crying about how they are "thieves", even as he shakes them down for money for their work, their creativity, their stories, of which he wrote not one blessed word. To add insult to injury, the patent office then compounds their error by issuing patents for every subsequent "plot device" that's tossed in their direction, by reason of precedent.

This is no analogy. This is a one-for-one exact comparison. It is exactly the way in which our patent office screwed up royally. Programming is an act of authorship, adequately governed and protected by copyright. Software patents are unconscionable; they are illogical; they are, I believe, precluded by a sober reading of statute, and they should be struck down. Of course, the district court in Texas disagrees, but this is tempered in my mind by the knowledge that the court that disagrees with me has made precious few decisions of which they can be proud. As it is, the rest of the world is struggling to avoid the same mistakes we in the US have made.

I feel for Microsoft here. This isn't a case of copyright infringement, they didn't steal anything. Nevertheless, they're getting shaken down, and that's a shame. In the meantime, it is what it is, and Microsoft faces a deadline for stopping the sale of Word, even as they file an appeal and prepare non-infringing versions of Word.

Meanwhile, i4i have looked at the code in the open-source OpenOffice.org and have declared that it does not infringe on their patent. So now is not a bad time to look at this alternative.

Reason Two:
Microsoft Expands Office Office Anti-Piracy Program. While the previous reason is none of Microsoft's doing, this one is, in half-measure. The other half-measure belongs to the users. So, in two parts:

Microsoft's anti-piracy measures such as "Genuine Advantage" haven't been stellar. While I can't fault Microsoft for feeling the need for piracy-reduction measures (the reasons for which I'm about to touch on), I can't say I'm thrilled that they don't address them by economic means, or through better mechanisms than they've chosen to use. So far, Microsoft's measures have been inconvenient, they've been restrictive, and they've had their share of false positives, meaning that even if you've bought your product from a retail store and installed it out of the box yourself, you've run a risk of being flagged as a pirate. They've also been almost completely ineffective... the real pirates have gotten around every measure thus far.

On the other hand, Microsoft Office is frequently pirated, which is a reason why Microsoft feels that these measures are necessary. It's pirated because it's mostly decent software; it's ubiquitous; and because it's bloody expensive. Software piracy is the result of that perfect storm of user need + overpriced solution. But you shouldn't be pirating software, even if you can't afford it, even if you need it really, really badly.

OpenOffice.org meets the needs of those users who are pirating office, and there's no need to steal what you can have -- legally -- for free. And it's more than a little stupid to pay for what you can have for free, as well. So combat software piracy by using OpenOffice.org and other Open Source software. Remember, with OpenOffice.org, here's what you get:
  • Word Processor
  • Spreadsheet
  • Presentation Graphics
  • Drawing
  • Database
  • Math
Throw in other Open Source software like Thunderbird email with Sunbird calendaring and you've got a full replacement suitable for most offices. All of these are cross-platform as well, so you are free to use any operating system (like Apple's Mac or the amazingly easy-to-use Ubuntu Linux) to improve your bottom line and cut your computer acquisition and support costs.

Reason Three:
I recently found these nifty new Avery templates for OpenOffice.org on the web at Worldlabel.com. Avery, of course, is a leading manufacture of business products, so these templates are a great enhancement for your OpenOffice.org-driven office. So a big thanks to the people at WorldLabel.com for providing these. Show your appreciation by buying some of their paper products. And then take a look at some of the other great templates available to you.

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