Anti-software-patent petition makes White House's top 10

White House opens door to online petitions

WASHINGTON -- The White House this month began allowing people to create petitions on its website, and an early favorite asks the president to "direct the patent office to cease issuing software patents."

The petition has more than 12,000 signatures, which puts it among the top 10 petitions on the White House website.

The leading petition, at the moment, concerns legalizing marijuana, with more than 41,000 signatures.

The White House has set up a relatively simple process for people to create or sign a petition. It asks for a name and email address, and then verifies the email.

The White House is promising a response for any petition that meets a 5,000-signature threshold within 30 days. It has not yet responded to any petition.

The software patent petition argues that patents have become a way "to stifle innovation and prevent competition rather than to support innovation and competitive markets. They've become an antitrust tool employed by large companies against small ones."

The petition's author is not disclosed, but the argument that the petition raises is longstanding.

In 2009, for instance, Red Hat filed a brief in a case that looked at the software patent issue and argued that software patents "form a minefield that slows and discourages software innovation."

Red Hat went on to explain that "because software products may involve thousands of patentable components, developers face the risk of having to defend weak but costly patent infringement lawsuits. A new class of business enterprise -- patent trolls -- has developed to file lawsuits to exploit this system."

Software developers can copyright their software, preventing people from making copies of their work without authorization. A patent gives the holder the right to stop someone from making, using or selling whatever has been proclaimed in the patent, said Leigh Martinson, a patent attorney at McDermott Will & Emery in Boston.

While a copyright prevents someone from making a copy of something, it doesn't stop someone from applying a method that is a feature of a software system. The patents are applied to these methods. Patents provide companies with "a competitive advantage, and it keeps people employed," said Martinson. What's hard for the developer working out of his garage is knowing whether what they are working on has a patent, he said.

A new provision in a patent law, recently approved by Congress, gives a "micro entity" as much as a 75% discount on a patent application.

Whether the White House petition site has any influence on patents or on any other issue is questionable.

Anthony Figliola, vice president of Empire Government Strategies, a New York-based grassroots lobbying and government relations firm, said the White House's petition site could be corrupted if professional advocacy groups "just bombard" the site with petitions and signatures.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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