Brain Patents in Bangladesh

How would it feel if someone told you they had a patent on the way part of your brain worked, and you were not allowed to use it without paying them money?

I have recently been on a trip to Bangladesh. The main language in Bangladesh is Bangla, which they take very seriously. I wrote the first draft of this blog post on 21st of February, which is “Shohid Dibosh“, Language Martyrs’ Day, in Bangladesh. Back in 1952, Bangladesh was East Pakistan – Pakistan then being one nation in two parts, separated by a thousand miles of India. At least five Bangladeshis were shot dead during a protest about wanting Bangla to be the national language of their part of Pakistan, rather than everyone having to learn Urdu, the language of West Pakistan. (Bangladesh became independent in 1971.) Bangladeshis see their right to use Bangla as one paid for in blood.

So, with the coming of computers, Bengali people wanted to use their computers in their language. But Bangla has its own script (the alphabet has about 60 characters, but no case distinction), and there was no way to type it. A keyboard layout and software was needed. The first popular system was created by a Bengali named Mustafa Jabbar, who had a publishing company. He came up with a layout and software to translate the key presses into code points, and some fonts to display them. This system is known as Bijoy. As businesses switched to computer-based publishing, they adopted Bijoy.

In 1989, Mr Joppa was granted a copyright on his keyboard layout, and in 2004, a patent. That meant that all Bijoy keyboards sold required a license from him, and they all came with his software – for Windows or Mac. Patents in Bangladesh have long expiry times – 50 years from the death of the inventor. (In the US and Europe, the time is 20 years from the date of filing.) For a long time, this was the only system available – so many people learned it. Even when others were invented, Bijoy came bundled with every keyboard and matched the markings on it – so there was little incentive to purchase anything else.

However, the original Bijoy software output character codes in the ASCII range, like all of those incompatible ISO charsets from the 1980s. This causes a number of problems, the biggest being that you need the right font to read the result, and if you don’t have it, you’ll see a load of gibberish.

With the coming of the Internet, this became a serious problem. There was no way of communicating over the Internet in Bangla with any certainty that the recipient’s computer had the right fonts and could read what you are writing. The solution to this problem is Unicode – a system where every character in every writing system in the world is uniquely identified by a number, instead of different scripts all sharing the numbers less than 256. Yet no version of Bijoy supporting Unicode was forthcoming – and there was nothing at all for Linux. And no-one else could solve this problem because of the patent.

To get around this Ankur, the Bengali open source organization, made a new layout, called Probhat, which was semi-phonetic. (Two T-like sounds were mapped to T and Shift-T, and so on.) But it was not very popular. Most people still used Bijoy.

Mr Joppa has actively defended his keyboard patents, claiming that they extend even to similar keyboards. Mehdi Hasan Khan, an undergraduate student, made another keyboard system which was fully phonetic – i.e. type Bangla sounds with Latin letters (e.g. “Shohid Dibosh”) and it would produce the right Bangla characters (“(শহীদ দিবস”). This is how Bengalis had been communicating on the net anyway, so they were used to it. He called it Avro, and (after a while) made it free and open source. But he also included in his system “Unibijoy” – a layout like Bijoy but with 8 keys different, and which output Unicode characters, so people who knew Bijoy could also start typing Bangla on the Internet without reprogramming their entire brain.

Mr Joppa sued him, claiming that Unibijoy was a copy of Bijoy. The case was settled out of court in mid-2010, and Mr Mehedi had to remove Unibijoy from his software.

In 2008, the Bangladesh National Election Commission produced over 10,000 computers to be used for a census of Bangladesh. They used the Avro software with the Unibijoy layout, because the Bijoy licensing fee was too high – so Mr Joppa sued them too. (That case is still proceeding.)

The only organization too big for him to sue is the Bangladesh government. The Bangladesh Computer Council – BCC – designated a form of Bijoy (also slightly modified) as the national keyboard layout. As yet, they have not been sued.

Finally, in 2010, Mr Joppa did produce Bijoy for Linux, which outputs Unicode – but it is closed source.

So now, today, there are not one but at least four ways of writing Bengali – Avro, Probhat, BCC and Bijoy. (For reference, at the bottom of this page I have made a list of how you activate each in Ubuntu Linux.)

If you learnt how to type Bengali any time before 2003, you probably have Bijoy burned into your brain. And switching keyboard layouts is hard. Latin language users – ever tried the Dvorak keyboard? Or Americans/Brits – ever sat down at a computer in France, discovered the top row of keys begins AZERTY, and been reduced to hunt-and-peck? Having the layout you know taken away from you cripples your ability to interact with a computer. Yet Mr Joppa claims he has a patent on your brain working with his system, and if you want to use it, you have to pay him and use his software.

This patent would probably not be classified as a software patent. But it still sucks. There are some types of thing which should not have owners – and human-computer interfaces are definitely one.

The World Intellectual Property Organization website has another telling of this story, with quite a different slant. According to them, all of this constitutes a great success.

Appendix

As far as I understand it, the ways to use each keyboard system in Ubuntu are:

  • Avro – go to the Avro site and install his package for your distribution. Switch your input method system from iBus to SCIM, then pick the newly-installed Avro input method and the Avro keyboard layout.
  • Probhat – change your keyboard layout to the Probhat keyboard, which comes with Ubuntu. You don’t need an input method editor.
  • BCC – change your keyboard layout to the “Bangladesh” keyboard layout, which comes with Ubuntu. You don’t need an input method editor.
  • Bijoy – if you want to use free software, you have a problem. Mr Joppa’s opposition means there are no good solutions for using Bijoy in Linux with free software. Your best bet is probably to use BCC, and learn the differences.

Thanks to Mahay Alam Khan and Shabab Mustafa for checking draft versions of this post. Any errors remain my own.

5 thoughts on “Brain Patents in Bangladesh

  1. I don’t think your characterization as a “patent on your brain working with his system” is really fair. The patent is on the keyboard layout. How your brain interacts with it is a separate issue. A patent on a keyboard layout seems valid and well-justified to me, and enforcing it on derived layouts also makes sense to me.

    I agree that this is a bad situation for the country to be in, but, IMO it’s the patent law that’s broken and not the patent: 50 years is way too long, especially in computer technology. Having the patent time period start in 2004 instead of around when the keyboard layout first shipped strikes me as a major execution problem. I would also argue that for cases like this, the government should be allowed to apply eminent domain to patents.

    Also, copyright shouldn’t apply to keyboard layouts, just like it doesn’t apply to the shape of a butterfly nut. It should apply only to the software that implements that keyboard layout.

  2. @fantasai: the 50-year period has not even yet begun: in Bangladesh, the patent validity runs from 2004 until the 50th anniversary of Mr. Joppa’s *death* — and he’s still alive AFAIK. Yes, me too, I think this is way too long: the way it seems to be going, his grandchildren will still be getting rich by taxing almost every Bengali computer user for the use of a keyboard layout their grandfather invented in 2004.

  3. “How would it feel if someone told you they had a patent on the way part of your brain worked, and you were not allowed to use it without paying them money?”

    I hear Microsoft (or is it Apple–I forget) has patented the 1 and the 0; the claims include everything based on those digits.

    I don’t know, it sounds a little extreme to me to claim that a keyboard layout is an unobvious invention. That’s what used to be required of patents. And yes, patents do have the side effect of stifling innovation, in addition to the intended effect of promoting innovation.

  4. Isn’t the US equivalent of this the multi touch patents that Apple has filed? AFAIK they also wanted the patents to certain gestures like pinch to zoom, not sure if those were granted.

  5. The workaround for this patent is both easy and obvious, and something that manufacturers *should* be doing anyway, in every country: just make the keyboard user-remappable, and then it doesn’t matter a whit whether the factory-configured default layout is what the user wants.