The idea of patents, as I understand it, is that an inventor gets protection for his idea at the expense of revealing exactly how it works. He can then exploit it for a while and reap the benefits. This system is being abused by companies to stifle competition by patenting anything they can think of. It seems that a lot of software patents are totally insufficient for anyone to replicate the process, but can be used to milk licencing fees from others. In some cases companies buy a patent just so they can do that. without producing anything themselves.
I'm no great expert on the subject, but I am convinced that software patents are a bad idea. Lots more reading at Wikipedia (check other references if you need to). Those writing free software cannot afford to patent their ideas or fight legal battles over them. If an idea can be shown to have been in use by others before then it cannot be patented. If I have anything wrong here then I am prepared to be corrected.
This post was inspired by Jono Bacon reporting on a petition on the PM's site. When I signed this morning there were 200 signatories. Now it's nearly 500. That still pales next to the one saying that the PM should stand on his head and juggle ice cream with over 2000! Anyone who cares about the future of software, especially Free Software should sign this, provided they are a British citizen.