Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 124 / DECEMBER 1990 / PAGE 10

Software Justice League of America

The computer software industry is increasingly litigious, and programmers are banding together to protect their ability to create new software without fear of being sued.

The League for Programming Freedom (LPF) was founded to oppose look-and-feel lawsuits, software patents, and other monopolistic computer industry practices. Richard Stallman, president of the organization, is best known as the founder of the Free Software Foundation, a group that has, among other things, worked to create a freely distributable UNIX clone called GNU.

The LPF points to the Lotus Development suit against Paperback Software, where Paperback was found guilty of infringing on Lotus's copyrights because its spreadsheet obeyed the keystroke commands used in Lotus 1-2-3 and had a similar user interface. The LPF's position paper opposing the look-and-feel copyrights compares this suit to a company filing a user-interface copyright on the steering wheel.

"During the span of the copyright, we would have gotten cars steered with joysticks, cars steered with levers, and cars steered with pedals. Each car user would have to choose a brand of car to learn to drive, and it would not be easy to switch," the paper states.

LPF members are also concerned about software patents. The U.S. Patent Office has issued patents on techniques the organization calls obvious, such as using an exclusive OR (XOR) to display a cursor (a technique used by most computers) or the technique of storing an obscured part of an onscreen window in memory so it can be redrawn quickly when the obscuring window disappears.

More than 2000 software patents have already been granted, the LPF says, with 700 granted in 1990 alone. The organization worries that if obvious or easily derived programming techniques are patented, the sheer number of patents will keep small companies out of the software business. Patent search fees and licensing costs make software development prohibitively expensive. New York-based REFAC Technology Development, for example, owner of the patent rights for the natural-order recalc technique used in spreadsheets, is demanding 5 percent of all earnings from spreadsheet sales.

The LPF plans to serve as an information resource and to actively lobby against programming restrictions. For more information, contact The League for Programming Freedom, 1 Kendall Square #143, P.O. Box 9171, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, or call (617) 243-4091.