Getting FAT in the Developing World

The US Patent and Trademark office has given an interesting ruling on software file structure patents that could have big implications for the developing world. The story is here.

In a decision that could have far-reaching implications -- from the fate of free software to the technology used in developing countries -- the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has granted the Public Patent Foundation (PubPat) a reexamination of a recently granted patent (number 5,579,517) on the use of file allocation tables (FATs), a ubiquitous technique for accessing a file system.

The FAT file system is used in many modern devices, including those that use flash memory, and many operating systems, such as Linux and Windows . Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) has been granted several file-related patents recently, and PubPat believes that all will fall if the USPTO invalidates or limits the FAT patent.

FAT and NTFS are ways to structure the underlying architecture of a computer, and thus informs how the software on the machine is used, memory is allocated, and more. That patents exist on these means that Microsoft (or any other company, technically, though it's not likely at this point) owns rights to the very foundation of a computer's architecture. Doing this allows them to set standards for the software they issue.

Of course, none of this is really a problem. Because so much of the developed world uses MS products, conflicts aren't too terribly frequent or hard to overcome. And none of this is illegal. (Much like Kevin constantly has to remind people who jump up and down screaming that Wal-Mart is "evil" that most all of Wal-Mart's practices that people find objectionable are, in fact, entirely legal, Microsoft was awarded patents legally, and has every right to demand certain standards from licensees. Whether you like this or not is another matter.) It's in the developing world that these practices are so hard to overcome.

Free operating software like Linux could, in fact, be like mana from heaven for entities that barely have enough to buy 4 year old computers, let alone make sure they have the latest editions of Office, PowerPoint, Project, or whathaveyou. Additionally, once a company, government, or individual gets locked into a certain system, it's awfully expensive to get away from continuing to use it. (Call it a form of path dependence that is based on investment in specific assets.) If a company adopts Linux, for instance, and uses the Linux file structure, not only are they agreeing to use certain software now, they have to look into the future and agree to continue, so long as MS holds patents and demands that software licensees abide by rules that eliminate the use of products by open-source operating systems.

If the patents that make this pattern possible are reviewed, and ultimately limited, it might be good news for developing countries trying to expand computing power at reasonable prices.*

In another example of how the software industry mirrors the drug insdustry, Microsoft regularly makes it cheap and easy for people to get licenses for their donated computers. Get 'em started on it for cheap, and there's a good chance they'll stay hooked -- and that they'll start buying the more expensive stuff. Software, this time like prescription drugs, only costs a lot for the very first one. After that, it's almost all profit.

*Lest anyone mistake my intentions, let me make it clear that I'm vehemently against patent-breaking, the abrogation of property rights, or the donation-by-fiat of goods regardless of those property rights. I bring this up to say that there are interesting trade-offs inherent in the question of property rights and the process of development. Remember, open-source software is made that way by its creators, for which I have some admiration. Their choice, not mine.

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This page contains a single entry by published on June 23, 2004 6:05 PM.

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