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Guest editorial: Nokia's patent announcement next to nothing
by Richard M. Stallman (May 30, 2005)

Foreword: This guest editorial by Richard M. Stallman (rms) takes a critical view of Nokia's announcement last week that it would exempt existing Linux kernels from patent litigation. Stallman founded the GNU Free Software project in 1984, and remains among its most idealistic and fervent supporters. Enjoy . . . !



Nokia's patent announcement next to nothing
by Richard M. Stallman


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 [story]. These are but a fraction of IBM's software patents, but still it was a substantial step. These 500 patents, at least, are no longer a danger to free software developers.

Since then, various other companies have been exploring how little they can give to the free software community and still pose as our supporters.

In January it was Sun's turn. Sun's announcement, if read quickly, appeared to say Sun had authorized free software developers to practice thousands of software patents. In fact, the announcement didn't really give anyone anything. Sun merely reminded us that Solaris is free software and that Sun would not sue us for using that. However, all other free software projects still face the threat of patent lawsuits from Sun.

This week it was Nokia's turn [story]. Nokia announced it would not use its patents to attack the developers of one specific free software project: the kernel Linux, developed by Linus Torvalds and others, which is most prominently used as the kernel of the GNU/Linux operating system.

Unlike Sun's empty gesture, this isn't nothing. It is good to know that one important free software project will not be attacked by this particular megacorporation. But the Free Software Directory lists over 4,000 free software packages. Nokia's announcement says nothing about them, so they still face the potential threat of being attacked by Nokia in the future. Nokia's announcement isn't nothing, but it is next to nothing.

We can honestly thank IBM for agreeing not to sue us with 500 of its patents, and we can thank Nokia too for agreeing not to attack one of our community's projects. But don't be distracted from the real issue at stake. Nokia most likely intends to use this announcement as a way to put us in more danger.

Nokia, along with IBM and Microsoft, is lobbying hard for software patents in Europe. Nokia will surely point to its own small gesture as "proof" that software patents will not be devastating to free software.

In fact it proves just the opposite. If Nokia's pledge not to attack a single free software project amounts to anything, it shows that Nokia's continued threat to all other free software projects amounts to real danger. And so does the threat from many other patent holders, most of which have not pledged even the slightest support to our community.

In effect, Nokia is lobbying the European Union to give Nokia and many others a new kind of weapon to shoot at software authors and users with--and telling the legislators, "Don't worry, it's safe to let private armies carry these guns, because we promise that our gunmen won't shoot anyone in that building."

The danger of software patents is not limited to free software. Developers of proprietary software (and its users) can also be sued for patent infringement. But the majority of software is private-use software, developed for and used by one client. Its developers (and its users) also face software patent lawsuits. This is why most businesses in Europe are against software patents -- a recent German government study found 85 percent opposition. But the megacorporations are spending lots of money to lull the European Parliament into ignoring all opinion except theirs. They frequently offer false and irrational arguments, hoping that the legislators won't recognize the error and that no one else will point it out to them.

To prevent the imposition of software patents in the EU we will need 50% of the members of the European Parliament to vote against them. Convincing these members requires lots of phone calls. (A phone call is much more effective than email.) Citizens of the European Union, please telephone each one of the members of the European Parliament in your region, and say you want them to support the JURI committee and vote against software patents. If they say that the directive won't authorize software patents, educate them based on the information you can find in ffii.org. That site offers advice on how to communicate with MEPs, useful arguments and facts, and background information.

PS. If you can present me with a copy of a real threat letter that was sent by a patent holder to a free software developer, that would be useful.


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.



About the author -- Richard Stallman graduated from Harvard in 1974 with a BA in physics. He is the founder of the GNU Project, launched in 1984 to develop the free software operating system GNU. Stallman is the principal author of the GNU Compiler Collection, a portable optimizing compiler that supports over 30 different architectures and seven programming languages. Stallman also wrote the GNU symbolic debugger (gdb), GNU Emacs, and various other programs for the GNU operating system. He is probably best known as the author of the GNU General Public License (GPL).



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