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Fax delays expose the folly of software patents

05 Apr 2012

Okifax-460 fax machine

Sometimes even the simplest ideas have to wait. Markus Kuhn, a computer scientist at the University of Cambridge, has been waiting patiently since 1995 to be able to exploit a simple bit of coding innovation.

Sadly for him, the intervening years have seen the technology this innovation was aimed at become obsolete. And he's in little doubt what's to blame: software patents.

Back in 1995, Kuhn had written roughly 4,000 lines of code as an open source implementation of the image compression algorithms used by fax machines. The trouble was, a single line of that code was covered by a patent awarded to Mitsubishi, for an image encoding standard known as JBIG1. 

That patent was hardly revolutionary, having been awarded for making a minor improvement to a separate piece of fax image encoding awarded to IBM. But it was enough to prevent Kuhn from being able to distribute an open source version of his standard.

“The JBIG1 standard is a good example of a technology that could have been made much simpler and a bit more efficient if the authors hadn’t had to justify to their employers the time spent on developing the standard with the prospect that users of the standard would have to pay licence fees,” he wrote in a blog post detailing his travails.

Meanwhile, as he explains, it would have been relatively simple to write an alternative image compression technique – but it would have been incompatible with the standards used by every fax machine maker.

The IT vendors have found ways to carefully craft these standards, ensuring all compatible implementations require a patent licence, said Kuhn.

“Patents were meant to protect investors, such that they could justify the often large investment necessary to introduce a new technology on the market. The idea was to encourage innovation. In the field of standardised file formats and computer protocols, patents are now the main hindrance,” he said.

The patents covering JBIG1 have now finally expired. But Kuhn argues that his experience illustrates the folly of software patents.

He had envisaged his code could help with the exchange of scanned documents over the internet, or even make paper archives accessible to everyone. Instead, patent rules saw his idea wither on the vine.

“There is a simple solution: amend patent legislation such that no patent licences have to be obtained solely for the purpose of compatibility,” he concluded.

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