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May 25, 2004

Richard Stallman on software patents

Richard StallmanDUBLIN -- The straight-talking Richard Stallman visited Trinity College Dublin and fired a salvo of anti-software patent jibes at megacorporations, patent attorneys and flunkie European politicians who dared to advocate the patenting of software. True to form, Stallman delivered a fast-paced lecture to an audience of 285 interested listeners, including three candidates standing for election to the European parliament and two suits from Dublin's largest IP firm. Stallman parried questioners, chided the soft-spoken and slated the unconverted with a fact-filled 80-minute lecture and a combative debating style.

  • "It's nearly impossible to develop and release free software."
  • "Most people are led to confuse copyright and patents."
  • "A patent is an absolute monopoly on an idea even if it's yours."
  • "Patents are a time-consuming hobby."
  • "Keeping track of software idea patents is a full-time job." Because Stallman didn't, his original code was patented under his nose. Twice.
  • "Patent language is twisted. Many software developers would not recognise their own inventions as patents."
  • Intellectual property attorneys "like to use that propaganda word 'protection.'"
  • "Anyone who talks about IP is either trying to mislead you or has been misled himself."
  • "The Patent Office tends to think that if someone does one thing and someone else does it several times, you have two processes."
  • "Global megacorporations use patents for leverage." Not for fielding useful iinventions. "Cross-licensing is why megacorps want software idea patents. They will form an exclusive club that gives them a measure of dominance."
  • "It's like crossing a minefield. WIth each step, probaby nothing happens. But there are a lot of steps in developing software."
  • Software development: "Construction by keystrokes, not construction by physical design."
  • "Software patents are an obstacle to progress in software."
  • "A patent system can retard progress. Software idea patents restrict everybody with a computer."

Sent mail2blog using Nokia Communicator O2 Typepad service from Trinity College Dublin. When this item arrives on Irish Typepad, it will probably attract Google advertisements from patent attorneys. When clicked, those ads support the free software movement. That's akin to IP attorneys buying GNU/Linux baseball caps from Stallman.
Seedot -- "Patent Nonsense: Euro elections and Geekfest collide"
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*lol* I love that last bit especially about the patent attourneys' Google ads.

Richard spoke brilliantly - rattling off example after example where software idea patents have been used in the US to the detriment of smaller software producers and computer users (where "smaller" means anything less than megacorporations, and "computer users" means you and me).
The organisers kindly let me say a few words (plug - I'm running in the Leinster constituency for the Euro elections - plug), and I remarked how Microsoft is a principle sponsor of the Irish EU Presidency. No wonder then that our government have been parroting the Seattle Party Line on the "knowledge based economy" and "intellectual property rights" to the Council of Ministers.
Something I forgot to mention last night though was that the European Patents Office have patents which, like UniSys's old patent on GIF images, could catch out anyone who makes even the simplest webpage design too. BT's claim to ownership of the hyperlink failed in the US courts, but the EPO have granted patents for heaps of design conventions and common features which you might already have on your website, intranet, CD-ROM or Flash animation even.

Sounds great -- I'm looking forward to hearing the audio once it's up on IFSO.ie. "Software idea patents" -- that's the best term for them I've heard!!

I'm in agreement with rms on that "under his nose" point. Given that spam-filtering is a fast-moving field with a lot of competition, and that SpamAssassin was there with a lot of techniques ahead of our commercial competitors, I'm almost sure that (like rms' experience) someone has successfully patented a software idea I'd implemented first, and without my knowledge.

(Of course, it's not the done thing to actually go *check*, since (under US patent law) that doubles the damages if you're found to be infringing at some point in the future; accidentally infringing is less serious than infringing knowingly. So staying in the dark is safer.)

So what we do is publish webpages, maintain check-in history logs, and publish those widely. We hope that these might be useful in future years to deal with possible patent infringement cases, so that we can prove that we really did come up with those techniques first.

Of course, we don't know if that'll be good enough, or if we'll be able to afford to defend ourselves, but that's the best we can do. :(

"It's nearly impossible to develop and release free software."

No. He is saying software patents make it dangerous to write any software more than the most basic. This danger exists for both proprietary and free software. He then emplains how this is more accute for free software developers.
"Patents are a time-consuming lobby."
This should read "Patents are a time consuming lottery".
"Keeping track of software idea patents is a full-time job." Because Stallman didn't, his original code was patented under his nose. Twice.

Code cannot itself be patented. Code is covered under copyright. Ideas he has had have been patented. However, he was explaining the futility of trying to keep track of new patents in the software field as they are "worded in tortuous legaleese" and "Even engineers who came up with the ideas don't recognise their own idea once described in a patent" - he gave an example of Paul Heckle and Hypercard. It is not an issue of things he has done being patented under his nose.


"A patent system can retard progress. Software idea patents restrict everybody with a computer."

RMS also makes the point that the patent system stops people doing exactly what is needed to have development- writing software. Yet the argument given for having patents is to encourage development. He also says that even though the argument that patents promote progress is false, that if it were actually true, the social costs of the patent system when applied to a field such as software would not be worth the promotion of progress.
"The Patent Office tends to think that if someone does one thing and someone else does it several times, you have two processes."

To clarify;
...and someone else does it several times, you have two processes should be ...and someone else does it several times, the patent office thinks there are two separate patentable ideas. However, in the field of computer science, generalising and repeating something is the norm. The patent office's threshold for non-obvious is very low. Much lower than the art's standard for non-obvious.

Thanks for the corrections to RSH's presentation. I'm a victim of my poor hearing and appreciate attentive readers.

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