It's been one week since the whole Lodsys mess broke. For those who don't know what I'm talking about, a patent holding company, Lodsys, sent letters to about a dozen independent iOS app developers, claiming that they had infringed on Lodsys's patents and asking for 0.575% of all profits, past and present.
For a lot of smaller developers, this a bone-chilling development. And, it feels grossly unfair. In most cases, the app developers were simply using Apple's in-app purchasing system. That's just wrong. Apple created the in-app purchasing framework. They promoted the system, encouraging developers to use it. Shouldn't they be responsible if it violates a patent?
If Lodsys succeeds, this really opens up Pandora's box. As a developer, I use third-party libraries all the time. Why build something from scratch, if I can find a mature, well-tested implementation that already meets my needs. My time is better spent building new things--not reinventing the wheel. But, Lodsys seems to imply that I might be financially responsible for any patents that those libraries violate. And that is scary. I mean, it's sit-bolt-upright-covered-in-cold-sweat scary. It's Zombie-werewolf-vampire crossbreed scary. Hell, it's Justin Bieber scary.
How can I build great software if I can't trust my own tools?
To make matters worse, what can an independent software developer do? Fighting lawsuits quickly gets unbelievably expensive. I've heard that the cost would be in the tens of thousands of dollars, if you're lucky. Many patent lawsuits stretch into the tens of millions.
Most small developers simply cannot afford to fight. If we get sued, we're out of business--or worse. I suspect very few small developers have thought to set up a limited liability companies (LLC) before putting their apps on the app store. This means they are personally responsible for the business. Lodsys could go after their families. They may have to declare bankruptcy; they may lose their house and their car, not to mention the potential damage to their credit rating.
The sad truth is, even if Lodsys's claims have absolutely no merit, most of us can't afford to fight them. So, what choices do we have?
The safest rout is to just pay up. Lodsys isn't asking for that much. As wrong and as unfair as it may seem, this may be the best option. In the short run.
The problem is, Lodsys is just the tip of the iceberg. If they are successful, others will follow. It's the death of 1,000 cuts. And worse, it will suck the fun out of the whole business. I don't want to face a daily gauntlet of bullies, rattling my teeth for lunch money. For many iOS developers, we do what we do because we love it. If it stops being fun, we'll just go do something else.
So, if Lodsys succeeds, the entire app ecosystem will suffer.
We could ignore Lodsys and hope they won't actually sue. However, this is a bit like playing russian roulette. True, filing a lawsuit would be expensive for Lodsys, and most small developers don't have much money, so they'd have trouble recouping the costs. Still, that hasn't stopped the RIAA. Additionally, Lodsys has sued Brother, HP, Lexmark and others. So they're clearly not afraid of going to court.
We can always pull our in-app purchases. While this works for new apps, it isn't a complete solution. After all, Lodsys is asking for money from past sales as well. Removing in-app purchases from an existing application may make them less likely to sue--but its just russian roulette with a larger cylinder. Lodsys could still go after the money from past sales. Worse yet, this cripples our ability to make money, and if we can't make money, we can't keep building great apps.
Even more frightening, we don't exactly know what Lodsys is claiming. Most of the letters seem to focus on in app purchases, but other developers are claiming that they have received letters for just having links in lite versions of their software pointing to the full version. Some seem to claim that just having a lite version is enough. It's not clear, and without clear borders, it's hard to know when you've crossed the line.
All things considered, I think Mike Lee has the right idea. This is too big for us to face alone. We need to get Apple involved. And the best way to do that is to boycott in-app purchases and file bugs. He recommends the following:
Apple rides to the rescue...
Apple has sent out letters to both Lodsys and the affected developers. In these letters, apple claims that their license covers developers, and requests that Lodsys withdraw all the notice letters sent to the developers, and cease making false accuisations.
The ball is now back in Lodsys's court, and it will be interesting to see what they do. I suspect that they will just walk away, and there will be basically no lasting effects.
While this is a very promising turn of events for App Developers everywhere, it really only deals with the issue at hand, and does little to address the underlying problems. Other patent holding companies may be hesitant to come after iOS App Developers in the future--but if Lodsys walks away unscathed, there seems to be little cost to trying.
I wonder if Apple will say anything about this (and possibly their stance towards future patent bullying) at WWDC?
MacWorld has the full text of Apple's letter.