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Face to Face: Ciaran O'Riordan, Chairman, IFSO
14-06-2004
by Anthony Quinn

The chairman of the Irish Free Software Organisation (IFSO) has been busy lately, as the latest version of the EU's software patents directive heads back to the European Parliament. Recently, Ciaran O'Riordan took time to speak with Anthony Quinn about the directive and the concept of 'Free Software' itself.

ENN: What is free software?

O'Riordan: The term is more related to freedom than it is to money. The Free Software Movement was started in 1983 with the creation of the GNU public licence system. Free software means that computer users are allowed to copy software, modify it if it doesn't do what they would like it to do, and also to redistribute it so that the community as a whole benefits. Free software development doesn't place restrictions in order to lever money from patent licences or to force users to pay for each copy. Access to the source code is also a precondition for free software. We highlight the issue of freedom by using the term free software.

ENN: Is free software the same as open source software?

O'Riordan: The Open Source Movement was started in 1998 to capitalise on the technical advantages offered by the collaborative development model. It suppressed the idea of freedom and instead had technical merits as the end goal. About 99.99 percent of open source software is free software, so the two terms refer to the same software, but the term free software highlights that the issue is freedom.

ENN: Richard Stallman, a prominent voice in Free Software Movement, recently spoke at Trinity College. Any thoughts on his presentation?

O'Riordan: The whole talk was about the danger of software patents. Stallman explained how patents are incompatible with software development as they remove the right to write to software and so actually damage the development process. Stallman got a great reaction; he's an intelligent and humorous speaker and he really enjoyed having a big crowd that included three MEP candidates. The doors had to eventually be closed for fire reasons. He discussed the implications of software patents and was aiming to help people get active about what directly needs to be done.

ENN: What is wrong with software patents?

O'Riordan: The developers of a piece of software automatically hold the copyright to a work and so patents are not needed. If a company owns a patent, it means that they have a monopoly on an idea. Patents prevent independent development in a field such as computer software where different components are used in a final product. Patents cause much more problems in this area than in other fields such as pharmaceutical development or machinery.

ENN: Is Europe moving towards an American system where patents are an integral part of innovation?

O'Riordan: Software patents hamper innovation. They were originally introduced in the US via a court case rather than by a democratic decision. A very damning US Federal Trade Commission report recently found no redeeming qualities for software patents. It listed many problems caused by them and said that software and Internet patents are in fact impeding innovation. It now seems many in the US would like to revert to not having patents but since it is the government that is handing them out it is very hard to undo the current situation. This experience in the US is also a reason for Europe to consider the issue of software patents very thoroughly since reversing it may not be possible or practical.

ENN: Would software patents not actually protect innovation?

O'Riordan: Protect is a very misleading word here. European companies are protected at moment because they can't be sued by US companies for patent infringement. If we have no software patents then European software developers are protected from being sued.

ENN: What is the situation with the EU proposed Computer-Implemented Inventions Directive now?

O'Riordan: It has now gone back to the European Parliament for a second reading where no new amendments can be added, but previously introduced changes can be reintroduced. From IFSO's perspective, there will be new MEPs so they will have to be informed about the dangers of software patents.

ENN: Do you think that the issue of software patents has become a political football?

O'Riordan: No, definitely not. We are still lacking open debate in Europe and the European legislative process still lacks democracy. Civil servants, instead of our elected representatives, still hold much of the power in the EU. The balance of power between the Parliament and the Council is still very much in favour of the latter. The area of software patent is also is a tough subject to discuss as there are numerous technical and legal issues.

ENN: How did you end up getting interested in the free software philosophy?

O'Riordan: As a software developer, I discovered that it was both more useful and much nicer to work in an environment where no legal restrictions could be placed on the software I was developing.

ENN: Why should ordinary computer users be interested in software patents?

O'Riordan: The issue of software patents is important for society as a whole. Large companies have huge lobbying power and can apply market pressures such as monopoly positions and proprietary file formats to stay dominant.

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