The Open Source patent war has begun

This has been a long way in the making, but I just found out about it due to some discussions in a couple of mailing lists and because of some research I’m conducting on software patents. I am afraid that this may be the first shot in the oncoming patent war.

The problem is that LIBDCA, an open source project part of the VideoLAN project that produces the excellent VLC media player, has received a threatening letter from Digital Theater Systems Inc. The company claims that the OSS project infringes its “invention” called DTS, a proprietary multichannel encoder that delivers high quality, low latency and high bitrate DVD audio. The technology is protected by European Patent EP0864146 and US Patent 5,956,674. I am not too sure about the technical aspects of the claim, but this seems like another broad patent claim for an audio encoder, which pretty much takes audio streams coming from one format and converts it into another, which has been deemed to be bloated and inefficient by some.

The field of software development has become a patent minefield because of broad software patents protecting multimedia standards. Take the case of the popular audio format AC-3 (AKA Dolby Sound), which has become the industry standard in recent years. Dolby became involved in a patent dispute with Lucent Technologies, who claimed that they had two patents (5,341,457 and 5,627,938) which protect technologies for encoding and decoding digital audio. These claims are as broad as you can get, and a court has initially declared that Dolby was not infringing, while they may yet be declared invalid at a later date. DTS should be happy about this development because from reading the two Lucent patents, their DTS technology appears to be infringing as well. What a complete madhouse!

It seems to me that this is more evidence against the current text of the Computer Implemented Invention Directive. We have been repeatedly told that the new directive will not lead to American-style software patents, but it seems clear that ridiculously broad patents like DTS are getting through the system with a supposed prohibition against patenting software as such. What will happen when a much broader text is adopted? We could see a flood of claims, where everything will be subject to a patent.

This case has very serious implications for open source development. Large companies like Dolby can fight some of the more preposterous claims in court, but small open source projects cannot.

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