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Software & Patents: Stallman Declares "The Battle...Must Continue!"

What's Really Behind Sun's No-Op Announcement?

Last year IBM took a significant step forward in cooperation with the free software community by offering blanket licenses for 500 of its patents to all free software developers. This does not cover all of IBM's software patents, which must number in the thousands. And there are other areas where IBM does not yet cooperate with the free software community -- they have not provided the necessary information to port a free BIOS to ThinkPads, for instance, and they are still pursuing Treacherous Computing. Nonetheless, this is a real step.

Recently Sun made an announcement that superficially seems similar. It said that Sun had given us "free access to Sun OpenSolaris related patents under the Common Development and Distribution License." But those words do not really make sense. The CDDL is a license for the copyright on software, not a policy for licensing patents. It applies to specific code and nothing else. (Copyright and patents have essentially nothing in common in the requirements they impose on the public.)

So what has really happened here? Reading the announcement clearly, I think that it doesn't announce anything at all. It simply describes, in a different and grandiose way, the previously announced release of the Solaris source code as free software under Sun's idiosyncratic license, the CDDL. Outside Solaris, few or no free software packages use that license - and Sun has not said it won't sue us for implementing the same techniques in our own free software.

Perhaps Sun will eventually give substance to its words and make this step a real one like IBM's. Perhaps some other large companies will take similar steps. Would this make free software safe from the danger of software patents? Would the problem of software patents be solved? Not on your life. Neither one.

We can be quite sure that not all large patent holders will do this. In fact, there is one company with lots of patents that surely won't take such a step. That is Microsoft, which says it is our enemy. Microsoft would love to make useful free software effectively illegal, and has plenty of money to pay lawyers to use whatever avenues governments provide them.

But the danger is not only from those that specifically consider us their enemies. It also comes from patent holders that are the enemy of everyone. These are the patent parasites - companies whose sole assets are patents, and whose only business is threats. Patent parasites don't really produce anything, they only suck the blood of those who do. As regards their choice of victims, they have the scruples of a mosquito, so you're only safe if they don't think you're worth biting.

Consider, for instance, the company founded by ex-Microsoft executive Myhrvold, which cheerfully says it is spending $350M to buy up patents (not specifically in software) so it can go around threatening and bullying everyone else. Of course, these parasites don't like to describe their activities in such terms. Much as the mafia, when it threatens to attack local businesses unless they pay, says it is charging for "protection," Myhrvold's company prefers to say it is "renting out" the patents. It expects this investment in what we could call the "patent protection racket" to pay off handsomely. For that to occur, lots of people have to get bitten.

The danger of software patents is not limited to free software, which is why the opposition to software patents is not limited to free software developers. Everyone involved with computers, aside from the megacorporations, must expect to lose. For instance, proprietary software developers are much more likely to be the victims of patents than to have a chance to use patents for aggression. Although I don't think proprietary software is ethically legitimate, it is a fact that developers of proprietary software are in the same danger from patents, and many of them know it.

Then think of all the software that is neither free nor proprietary: private-use software, software developed for and used by one client. Most software is private-use software. The developers of this software can also be sued for using patented techniques, and so can the users of the software. Any software patent holder, including the pirates, can sue computer users as well as software developers. Threatening the users is a common technique for an unscrupulous patent holder to put the screws on a developer.

We can honestly thank IBM for agreeing not to sue us with 500 of its patents, and if Sun does likewise, we will be able to thank Sun, too. But defusing a small fraction of the landmines in the field of software won't make it safe to walk around. We mustn't let these partial measures lull us into thinking that computing can tolerate the patent system. The battle against software patents, in Europe and elsewhere, must continue!

Copyright 2005 Richard Stallman
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted worldwide without royalty in any medium provided this notice is preserved.

More Stories By Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman is the founder of the Gnu Project, launched in 1984 to develop the free operating system GNU (an acronym for "GNU's Not Unix"), and thereby give computer users the freedom that most of them have lost. GNU is free software: everyone is free to copy it and redistribute it, as well as to make changes either large or small. He is the principal or initial author of GNU Emacs, the GNU C Compiler, the GNU Debugger GDB and parts of other packages. He is also president of the Free Software Foundation (FSF).

Any copyright notice in his articles supersedes all copyright notices on the SYS-CON and Ulitzer sites.

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Most Recent Comments
Daniel Wallace 02/06/05 08:39:04 PM EST

Wittgenstein, Popper, Russell, and Frege move over. Stallman
is blazing a path of enlightenment and freeing mens' souls
from the bonds of intellectual property and capitalism...
the bane the proprietary culture draws nigh. Can the Nobel
be far amiss? Yeah...

ctid 02/06/05 07:17:45 AM EST

This post is really a plea for people to be a bit nicer to and about RMS. Take my word for it, in time he will come to be considered as one of the most important philosophers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

threni 02/06/05 07:17:37 AM EST

You can't blame someone for identifying problems and coming up with solutions just because most people don't understand their worth at the moment. Current womens/black/animal rights were won through slow, unpopular and sometimes illegal methods, and people criticized those at the time too. When people can't tape programmes off the tv or listen to music they've bought on CD (or wherever) in the car is when people will start to pay more attention to some of these issues.

HeadCrash 02/06/05 07:15:11 AM EST

If there's one thing I wish for RMS, it would be that he and his team finally wrap up and release the Hurd kernel. Maybe then he'll finally bugger off and leave Linux alone

tcstoehr 02/06/05 07:11:05 AM EST

There's nothing wrong with charging money for software to cover costs and run a business. Everyone is free to buy it or not. I worked for 12 years on a software package that assists and optimizes the manufacture of printed circuit boards. It has become very difficult to produce PCBs without this type of software. It would never have been developed as free software. Custom "one-off" solutions would force hardware manufacturers out of their expertise. Without charging for software I'm guessing there would be a lot fewer choice we'd be able to make.

dreamchaser 02/06/05 07:06:55 AM EST

Stallman constantly talks about the freedom of users. What about the freedom of programmers? By this I mean the freedom to decide whether to publish your source or not, to charge money for your work or not. That concept never enters his lexicon. Yes, he has made huge contributions to computing over the years. No, he is not always right.

catdevnull 02/06/05 07:00:13 AM EST

I think Stallman is a bit eccentric about his ideas about freedom. I would venture to guess that he's wired a bit funny. His ideologies are are not practical nor are they rooted in reality. My freedom is not in jeopardy because I elected to use MacOS X on an Apple G5 (my wallet was but not not my freedom). Stallman presumes that his intelligence and knowledge give him the right to not respect the boundaries of others. When someone tells him that he can't have his way with their software (or if it isn't written by his own minions or philosophies), he cries foul and plays the freedom card. This isn't an ideology, this is arrogance and extreme anti-social behavior.

sql*kitten 02/06/05 06:56:42 AM EST

RMS has a million dollar grant from the MacArthur Foundation, and permanent facilities at his disposal at MIT, one of the best-equipped universities in the world. He is unmarried and has no children.

He can afford high-handed morals. Regular folks don't have that luxury. And it is a luxury; RMS has the money to live the lifestyle he wants to lead. Real people have real responsibilities.

leomekenkamp 02/06/05 06:55:38 AM EST

RMS is one of the few extremists in this world that actually make this world a better place.

gplworks 02/06/05 06:53:37 AM EST

The GPL is one of the most dramatically practical licenses there is. Indeed, a project that standardizes upon the GPL is giving its contributors the most amount of freedom.

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