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RMS: The GNU GPL Is Here to Stay
Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4

Is the patent system broken (and needs fixing) or useless (and needs termination)?



"Useless" is an understatement--in the software field, the patent system is harmful and unjust.

Some big companies have announced that they will share their patents to cover Linux (the kernel!) and some other free software projects. Because Linux people didn't refuse this move, now they have an entanglement with those patents. Doing so, they sent a message to the people that is clearly not "we are against patents."

That is a peculiar way to look at the situation. I don't see how we have any more "entanglement" with these patents now than we did before those announcements.

These companies said they would not use certain patents to attack some free software projects. IBM said it wouldn't use a specific set of 500 patents to attack any of us. Nokia said it would not attack Linux the kernel--but said nothing about the thousands of other programs in a typical GNU/Linux system.

We should not criticize those companies for the decision not to attack some of us with some of their weapons. In that, they are doing the right thing. What we should criticize is the implicit remaining threat to attack the rest of us, or attack us with the rest of their weapons. If a company commits not to attack free software with patents, that company will not be a threat to our community.

However, even if some companies do that, others will not. Where software patents exist, no software developer, no computer user is safe from them. So the important issue is to reject software patents in Europe (and elsewhere)--so that these companies, and others, won't have a way to attack people there.

The vote in the European Parliament rejected one attempt to impose software patents on the European Union, but it did not settle the issue. We have driven off the software patent forces, but not defeated them. They will surely attack again in another way.

I didn't hear anyone saying, "Thanks, but we don't want your patents because we are against this system and we don't want to support it or be part of it." Don't you think they should have?

That would have been a foolish and irrational response.

The danger of software patents doesn't come from companies promising not to use certain patents against certain free software packages. Those cases are the exception--the usual case is that the software patent holder has made no promise not to sue the particular developer or user in question. That's what makes software patents dangerous to society.

Getting those promises won't abolish software patents, but rejecting those promises when offered won't do it either. The fact is, nobody has a plausible plan for how to abolish software patents in the U.S., against the power of the megacorporations that dominate the U.S. government. If we keep educating the public, and occasionally boycotting companies that actually sue, maybe someday a situation will arise where we find a way to abolish software patents. But I don't plan to hold my breath waiting for that, and in the meantime, if some companies promise not to sue some free software projects, that is a relief.

Palladium could be a big freedom threat. Do you plan to add any specific clause to GPL 3?

Palladium was Microsoft's name for one particular scheme for Treacherous Computing. There are several such schemes, different in their details, but what they all have in common is that they are designed to make it impossible for you to program your computer to do certain jobs. They are based using on encryption and signatures with keys that are not under your control, so that no program you write will be able to use the same keys.

Microsoft, Intel, and other Treacherous Computing proponents cite various possible applications of losing control over your computer, but this is a distraction, as their principal motive is to make Digital Restrictions Management impossible to break with software. DeCSS is censored in the U.S. and Europe, but at least it exists. Imagine if writing DeCSS were mathematically impossible--that is the world of Treacherous Computing.

DRM is an injustice in itself, but Treacherous Computing also attacks free software as a side effect. Since no one can write free software to access the DRM files, that becomes a job that only proprietary software can do--an artificially imposed problem that can never be solved.

We would consider modifying the GPL to block Treacherous Computing, but it is not clear that any such change could help. Microsoft, Intel and the rest have no need or wish to employ GPL-covered software in direct support of Treacherous Computing; forbidding them to use it that way won't protect us from their plan.

Intel already has Treacherous Computing hardware in the pipeline. Resistance probably has to be aimed at that preventing the success of that hardware.

Is there any plan to contact other vendors (AMD, for example) to persuade them into following a different path?

I think AMD was pressured; I don't know how or by whom, into agreeing to support Treacherous Computing in the first place. And Apple appears to have switched to the x86 architecture specifically so it could support Treacherous Computing. So this road looks difficult--I think one would need to be able to point to a large and organized group of supporters, in order to overcome the pressure from the other side. The free software community is large, but it is not organized toward doing this.

What type of clauses do you plan to add to fight "Treacherous Computing"?

Nothing we put in free software licenses can block the implementation of Treacherous Computing inside a computer, just as nothing we put in free software licenses can prevent the existence of software patents. The only thing our licenses can affect is whether those threats can pervert the nature of our software. Thus, we are thinking about a clause requiring distribution, with the software, of any signature keys necessary to sign the binary so that it can run and fully utilize the machine's facilities. This would prevent the perversion of a supposedly "free" program, which nominally you are allowed to change, except that modified versions are prevented from functioning.

The strategic decision of whether such a requirement is a good idea is very difficult.

Federico Biancuzzi is a freelance interviewer. His interviews appeared on publications such as ONLamp.com, LinuxDevCenter.com, SecurityFocus.com, NewsForge.com, Linux.com, TheRegister.co.uk, ArsTechnica.com, the Polish print magazine BSD Magazine, and the Italian print magazine Linux&C.


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