May 122005

In reading this article at uk.builder, one might get the impression that Borland is pulling a SCO scorched earth manuver by maniacally raping and pillaging Open Source advocates over the use of a structure exception handling (SEH) technique that Borland happens to have a patent on.  I find it particularly significant that neither the uk.builder reporter nor the Open Source advocates felt it necessary to obtain a comment from a Borland representative before airing their gripes.

Over on slashdot, this post posits that the reason GCC doesn’t support SEH is because of the Borland patent.

That’s rich, and typical of Slashdot.  Let’s take a look at the time lines here:  GCC has been around for centuries, without Windows-style SEH support.  In fact, GCC’s implementation of C++ exception handling produces so much code bloat (50 to 150% larger exes) that nobody enables GCC exception handling support unless they’re absolutely desperate or completely clueless.

Next, Borland enters the Linux scene relatively recently, discovers that GCC can’t cut the mustard for SEH semantics and language interop found on other platforms (Windows) (let’s not harp on the code bloat issue), so Borland implements SEH on its own in its own compilers (with much less code bloat), at considerable expense (and no bloat).  Since this represents a fairly unique nugget of technology, Borland patents its SEH technique and adds it to the Borland Defense Fund.  (Remember that $100 million payment from Microsoft to Borland a few years ago?  Borland didn’t start that fight, but we certainly finished it.)

Whether software patents are the root of all evil or merely a device in our intellectual economy is really beside the point.  Patents suck, sure, but it’s the system that we’re given.  You can choose to abstain on principle, and then be walked all over by those who use the system against you.  Or, you can choose to defend yourself and use the system to make the schoolyard bullies regret bothering you.

The existance of a patent does not categorically mean all software based on similar ideas open or otherwise is null and void.  Licensing IP to specific open source projects is not unheard of, even with no monetary interest.  I believe IBM has granted IP rights for some of its compression patents to imaging standards bodies.

If you’re seeking reassurance that some artifact won’t be used to sabotage a project, just ring the doorbell and ask.  There are much better ways to open a discussion than throwing a brick through the window.