In a recent court ruling Microsoft has been forced to pay $1.52 billion for patent infringements relating to MP3 technologies. This is one of those rare occasions when we get to see the dangers of software patents in a real world situation; as well as this we can also find vindication of the stance taken by many distributors of Free Software.
If this ruling is upheld after Microsoft's appeal then, reportedly, hundreds of other firms will also be at risk of a law suit including Apple and RealNetworks. In some of the reports about this I've even seen it said that Alcatel are still considering whether or not to revoke Microsoft's right to use the technology; I think this outcome is pretty unlikely as they would no longer be able to claim such large royalties!
The implications perhaps reach beyond this individual case. Considering the court ruled in favour of the patent holder on this occasion, how can companies be sure that the same won't happen in other situations? A climate of fear might be created which could stagnate innovation for fear of infringing someone's patents and being forced to pay a large sum of money! This is exactly what people like RMS have been saying for years and this is exactly why distributors of free software have aired on the side of caution by not including patented technologies such as MP3 and MPEG in their releases.
I'm no lawyer so I can't claim to know the extent of damage a ruling like this against distributors of free software could have caused to our community but I imagine it would have been significant – perhaps even enough to draw development to a close on some projects(?). I think all distributions have taken a lot of flack over the decision to leave out patented technologies, particularly from people migrating from proprietary software (I can remember feeling frustrated about this when I first started using GNU/Linux!): I think now we can see they were justified in their approach and deserve a pat on the back.
I'll also mention quickly that I think it's conceivable that this action could benefit technologies like OGG: in the future if companies decide they'd rather not risk being sued, or can't afford the costs now, perhaps they'll abandon their support of MP3 in favour of technologies not encumbered by patents. One can dream...
This is all I wanted to say: congratulations to the guys who made leaving out patented technologies part of their strategy! I won't be going in to more details about the case as I'm not from a legal background and don't want to embarrass myself (if I haven't already!) but instead here are a few links where you can find out a bit more: BBC coverage can be found here and here; The Register here; Wired expresses the potential benefits for opposing technologies such as OGG here too.