Feeding hay to the penguin

Recently, during FISL (Fórum Internacional de Software Livre) in Brazil, Eric S. Raymond gave an interview to Federico Biancuzzi of OnLAMP. In it, he was asked (to make the long and convoluted question short) if the donation of software patents to FOSS from the big patent holders should be rejected, as accepting it implies support for the patents. He replied:

I don’t agree with that interpretation. Think back to the days of the Cold War. If the Soviets let some dissidents out of jail, would you have told them “No, put those people back in jail” because you thought accepting that action meant supporting the Gulag?

I believe you are wrong here, Mr. Raymond. I appreciate much your enormous contributions to FOSS, but you are still a human – and to err is human.

Dissidents are living human beings, who suffer while in jail. Accepting and supporting this action really does lend some support to the Soviet system, including the Gulag. However, it also buys freedom to the dissidents, which is a care for humans in need. Also, it gives them some opportunity to fight better for freedom. All this outweighs the support lended to the Gulag.

Software technologies do not strive for freedom, or suffer when closed. So, the human care element is missing here. The support implied for the patent holders remains, and the only thing to balance it is the use of these patents for the FOSS.

This use, however, is smaller than commonly believed. If the patent holders are truly honest to the FOSS, they will open the donated patents completely. Now, these patents are partially or completely useless to FOSS. A patent is truly usable in FOSS only if it is completely free of control – that is, it is not really a patent anymore.

Take, for example, the patents donated by IBM. IBM says they will never use their control of patents to harm FOSS, unless they have to defend themselves. However, this is not a clear definition, or a legal obligation. IBM may decide at a whim to be in danger from any FOSS project – and then, this project, if it carelessly believed the promises of IBM, and used their patents, will be in a miserable position. It will be effectively under the control of IBM, exactly like a proprietary software is under the control of its developer.

Furthermore, the patents donated by IBM to FOSS are not even usable inside big parts of FOSS. For example, they are incompatible with the BSD license, since a BSD-licensed code may be freely incorporated into a proprietary software, and IBM forbids the free usage of these patents in a non-FOSS project. GPL-licensed projects seem to be safe from this controversy… as long as IBM wouldn’t decide suddenly that they are a danger.

It is even worse with most other patent donations. For example, the patents donated by Nokia are allowed to be used only inside the Linux kernel. However, this contradicts directly to all existing definitions of a free software, and also to the GPL license that governs Linux, and requires that the code is freely reusable. So, as long as Linux is under GPL (or any other FOSS license), these patents may not be used even in it. This donation is a clear propaganda move by Nokia, and is as useful as feeding hay to a penguin. (FYI, penguins eat only fish, and cannot digest vegetation.)

Thank you, Nokia, but either be honest with us, or keep these patents for you – and, please, STOP LOBBYING FOR SOFTWARE PATENTS IN EUROPE! We see this, and will not forget it easily – especially those of us who will lose their job because of it. My current GSM is Nokia, and I love it – but the next one will not be. I don’t like companies that try to cheat me.

Thank you, IBM, too – you have done much for FOSS, but please, do understand that patents and FOSS are incompatible. Open that donation of yours completely, and you will gain a position in FOSS that will give you more than the patent control lost. Or, keep it half-closed, and you will soon bump into a situation that will explain you this mistake in practice. And will probably add that it is already too late to do anything, and you should have better listened earlier.

The second choice will probably devastate not only you, but also FOSS, too. So, my 5cc for you are to take the first choice.

Thank you, all others, who pretend to have donated patents to FOSS, while actually keeping the control over them. I don’t care if you are ill-minded, or just stupid. But please, stop feeding hay to the penguin.

Nothing good will come out of this. At least, for the penguin.

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