I first read it on slashdot, but more mainstream media like cnn.com are now also reporting that Microsoft has applied for a patent on “Pay-As-You-Go” computing. At this point, it’s only a patent application, so the sky is not falling, yet.

The idea seems pretty straightforward. Instead of having software installed on your computer in your home or office, users will log into a Web site and run a word processor, spreadsheet, e-mail application, game, or whatever. That idea is not, in itself, new. Google Apps has been offering software-as-a-service for years now. What’s new in Microsoft’s patent application are two new ideas:

1. Microsoft will charge by the hour for this new software-as-a-service. And the charge will be significant: measured in dollars per hour, not pennies.
2. Much scarier, in my opinion, the patent also covers paying for the functionality of the hardware — CPU, graphics card, network interface — by the hour. The reason this is scary is that in order to do this, Microsoft will have to have total control of every component inside a user’s computer, and the power to turn that component off if the user doesn’t pay whatever fee Microsoft demands.

This is not (just) Microsoft-basing on my part. If any other company — Apple, IBM, Google, Joe’s Fast Software Company — had applied for a patent like this, I’d be worried. Here is the problem.

I can remember a time when if you bought something, you owned it. For instance, I have bought books, and I own them. I can re-sell those books on E-Bay if I want, or loan them to a friend, or donate them to a public library. Most importantly, I can read them again without having to pay again. Likewise, I bought audio CD’s (and audio cassettes and vinyl LP’s, for that matter), and I can play them in my house, on a Walkman, in my car, or wherever, whenever I want. All for one fee. Those times are rapidly slipping into the past.

Think of everything you use a computer for. Think of all the data you think you own and consider yours: your photos, your financial records, those embarrassing and highly personal e-mail messages from an ex-romantic interest that you’ve saved, your digital music, everything. Under this concept of computer “rental,” it won’t be yours. Your key to all that data, not to mention the world of communication and information that the Internet provides, will be in the hands of one company, and that company will be in a position to charge you an arm and a leg for that data. If you don’t pay the fee, they can deny you access. If you don’t pay the fee, they can, in effect, shut down your hard drive. That’s what this patent says. Your data will be hostage to the toll collector. If the price goes up, you’ll have to pay it, or say good-bye to your data.

Once this system comes into being, I guarantee you’ll be trapped forever if you sign up for it. The company will control the basic operations of your computer, so it can allow or deny permission to do certain things depending on what fees you’ve paid. Since the company has this level of control already, it is a simple matter for them to simply stop you from copying your files to another computer (one that doesn’t require metered usage).

Now, people might be OK with this concept if the fee is reasonable. But I’m not — not at any price. My work, my hobbies, my financial records, my video collection — they’re mine, dammit, and if anyone wants to lock me out of them, they’ll do it over my dead body. I am reminded of Richard Stallman’s story, The Right to Read. When Stallman published that story in 1997, a lot of people laughed at it.

Don’t laugh. It’s happening.