Software makers have slammed reports by the government that patents posed a considerable threat to the growth of the African software sector.
According to a report published on Thursday by technology newswire Tectonic, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, the minister of public service and administration, told the Idlelo conference in Dakar, Senegal, that free software and open standards were intended to encourage competition, while patents were exclusive and anti-competitive by their nature.
“Whereas there are some industries where the temporary monopoly granted by a patent may be justified … there’s no reason to believe that society benefits from such monopolies being granted for computer programs [and inventions],” she said in a pre-recorded speech delivered at the conference.
But Paulo Ferreira, the platform strategy manager at Microsoft South Africa, said: “There is no such thing as free software. Nobody develops software for charity.”
He added: “For innovation to continue, there needs to be value – and even open-source applications have some form of market model, which incentivises them to continue innovating.”
Some international software makers have been against open-source software, which has been promoted by local information technology (IT) mogul Mark Shuttleworth.
Fraser-Moleketi was quoted saying: “Open standards are a critical factor in building interoperable systems that are important to governments …
“In South African we have a document – the minimum interoperability standards – which includes the use of open document format.”
Ferreira said that Microsoft was working with key industry partners, including open-source communities, to develop interoperable solutions that met customer needs.
He said: “A country like India has built a powerhouse IT economy without engaging in largely political debates around free and proprietary software. It is vital that South Africa moves beyond the current politically charged debate around open-source software.
“Instead, we should focus our energies on delivering value-added services to the government, business and its citizens, using whatever existing technology and standards they have in place, thus meeting any specific needs they have to access and use information optimally.”
Malcolm Rabson, the managing director at software company Dariel Solutions, said the open-source technology appeared to be free but did not come with a “rich” set of documentation for the project, which required high-end skills.
He said this resulted in more money being spent in salaries for these “high-end technologists”.
Rob Lith, a director at Connection Telecom, said open source was disrupting proprietary alternatives and that “is why we see the ‘kraal’ mentality of the proprietary vendors who are trying to protect their revenues”.
The industry was moving towards a collaboration phase, using open source as the foundation for applications, he said. “To isolate yourself from this collaboration is suicide.”