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Justin Frankel is a computer programmer best known for his work on the Winamp MP3 player (which was sold to AOL in 1999) and the gnutella peer-to-peer file-sharing network, which[…]

The developer behind Winamp and the gnutella network thinks that we shouldn’t be able to patent something that is essentially just math. Software, like DNA, is so abstract that it should be everybody’s intellectual property.

Question: Why are software patents so controversial?

rnJustin Frankel: There are a lot of people who are for them and a rnlot of people are against them.  It seems that most of the people who rnare for them are essentially IP holding companies who just sit around rnand wait with patents and wait until technology actually gets rninteresting, using something that could potentially be covered by these rnpatents, and then they sue people.  And they don't... generally they rndon’t sue small companies, they sue Microsoft and IBM.  And of course, rnIBM and you know, like all these big companies have their own patents rnpools and they use them as leverage against other companies with rnpatents. 
rnBut I just, you know, I think there are so many problems with it.  The rnbiggest problems are that you have people patenting things that are rnessentially math, which is what patents are not supposed to be even rnabout at all.  And the... I mean, there are other problems.  There are rnno—I don’t know.  It’s—I’m usually drunk when I give this explanation, rnand it comes out so much smoother. 
rnI just think that they are a big problem largely because you can rninfringe on them without knowing that you do and as a small company you rnhave like very little—you don’t have resources to go and research rnwhether or not you do.  I could write a 100,000 lines of code and for rnall I know, 50,000 of them infringe on various things.  And I wouldn’t rnknow that.  And normally if you infringe someone's like trademark, for rnexample, if they don’t enforce it it's to your advantage, because they rnstart to lose their rights.  Whereas patents, if they don’t enforce it rnfor ten years, they can come and sue you for the ten years that you’ve rnbeen making money on your patent, and you're completely screwed.  So, rnthere's no incentive for them to actually go and try to legitimately rnlicense it. 
rnIt's really the kind of thing where there are probably some middle rnground where it makes sense to have things be patentable. Obviously in rnmany places it does make sense.  But thinks like software and people rnpatenting DNA, it’s at the point where you have things that are so rnabstract that they really should belong to everybody.  And no one's rnreally making viable businesses on software patents.  The only thing rnthey’re doing is extorting money out of other people.  And the people rnwho have the most software patents probably don't even want them to rnexist; they’re forced to do it to cover their own asses. 
rnRecorded on June 21, 2010
rnInterviewed by Jessica Liebman