They threaten nonprofits that use the Internet for fundraising and advocacy. That's nearly every modern nonprofit out there.

Thankfully, there's a solution in the making. A newly minted organization called the Nonprofit Innovation Alliance (NIA) has clever plan for keeping business-method patents out of the nonprofit arena. It's rounding up all the leading technology and consulting companies that help nonprofits use the Internet, then forging an alliance in which every member agrees to cross-license any current and future business-method patents on a royalty-free basis.

Think The Sopranos, but in reverse. That's right -- these companies are ganging up to make sure that nonprofits like EFF don't have to pay a "patent tax" when we purchase the technology and services that allow us to send EFFector or run the Action Center. That means more of donors' money going to the actual work we do, not the software systems we use.

And not a moment too soon -- at least one company that services nonprofits has obtained a business-method patent and started shaking down its competitors.

Its software systems and services aren't especially inventive or original. But needless to say, that doesn't always stop the US Patent and Trademark Office from issuing a business-method patent. For an example of how bad it can get, check out this claimed "invention" described in a pending patent application:

"A method for conducting a fundraising campaign by an organization or person over a wide-area network, comprising the steps of: hosting a website including a plurality of linked web pages, the website providing information about the fundraising campaign and soliciting potential donors to make a charitable contribution to the fundraising campaign; registering on the website; contacting third parties via email messages soliciting charitable donations; and providing one or more reports, on the website, including information on the status of the fundraising campaign." (Patent application entitled: "Method and system for an efficient fundraising campaign over a wide area network" application number 764787.)

That's not a patent application. That's a baseball bat for beating back competitors who don't fork over the protection money -- er, I mean the licensing fee.

The NIA solution will only work if enough companies and nonprofits join the effort to make the nonprofit world a business-patent-free space. Check out the website for more information and consider endorsing the NIA and using software solutions from the companies that are facing down the bad guys.

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