21 February, 2005

Bill Gates and other communists by Richard Stallman -ZdNet
When CNET News.com asked Bill Gates about software patents, he shifted the subject to "intellectual property," blurring the issue with various other laws. Then he said anyone who won't give blanket support to all these laws is a communist. When someone uses the term "intellectual property," typically he's either confused himself, or trying to confuse you. The term is used to lump together copyright law, patent law and various other laws, whose requirements and effects are entirely different.

Software developers are not up in arms against copyright law which entails the developer, the copyright on the program; as long as the programmers wrote the code themselves, no one else has a copyright on their code. Patents are a different story. Software patents don't cover programs or code; they cover ideas (methods, techniques, features, algorithms, etc.)Developing a large program entails combining thousands of ideas, and even if a few of them are new, the rest needs must have come from other software the developer has seen. If each of these ideas could be patented by someone, every large program would likely infringe hundreds of patents. Developing a large program means laying oneself open to hundreds of potential lawsuits. Software patents are menaces to software developers, and to the users, who can also be sued.

A few fortunate software developers avoid most of the danger. These are the megacorporations, which typically have thousands of patents each, and cross-license with each other. This gives them an advantage over smaller rivals not in a position to do likewise. That's why it is generally the megacorporations that lobby for software patents.

When Mr. Gates started hyping his solution to the problem of spam, I suspected this was a plan to use patents to grab control of the Net. Sure enough, in 2004 Microsoft asked the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) to approve a mail protocol that Microsoft was trying to patent. The license policy for the protocol was designed to forbid free software entirely. No program supporting this mail protocol could be released as free software--not under the GNU GPL (General Public License), or the MPL (Mozilla Public License), or the Apache license, or either of the BSD licenses, or any other. The IETF rejected Microsoft's protocol, but Microsoft said it would try to convince major ISPs to use it anyway.

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