Model Engineering College

Talk by Richard M. Stallman 

The Danger of Software Patents

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       Now I'll answer  questions. 

        Oh, by the way any journos over here, I would recommend writing articles about software patents separately, from articles about free software. If you cover them in one article together, people may get the idea that software patents are only bad for the free software developers and they are okay for other software developers.

        This is not true, if you think back of what I have said, hardly any of it relates to the question of whether the programs are free or not, the dangers of the same for all software developers. So please don't take the risk, the people will get confused, write separate articles. 


Question: Sir, you said that companies like IBM are harmed 10 times as much as they benefit?

        No. What I said is the harm that would had happened to them is 10 times the benefit, but this harm is purely theoretical, it doesn't occur. You see, they avoid it through crosslicensing. So in fact, the harm does not happen.

But it is only neutralised, they don't really benefit?

       Well, they do, you see, because, the bare aspect they avoid through cross licensing and meanwhile they do collect money from some other licensees. So they are benefiting in total. There is the small benefit which happens and the big potential harm which does not happen. So you have zero plus something for the benefit.

But for that something will oppose this movement against patents?

       Right, IBM favours software patents. I had trouble one, I couldn't hear all the words in your sentence. I don't know whether there was a 'not' in it. I couldn't  tell, there are two diametrically opposite meanings for what you have said, so what you can do is make sure that the situation is clear. IBM favours software patents, IBM thinks it stands to gain a lot from software patents. So what it stands to gain is that the IBM and the other very big companies would basically control software development, because it will be very hard to do independent software development.

       To develop  nontrivial programs you're going to have to infringe patents of IBMs. Now if you are big and often lucky enough, you might have some patents of your own and make IBM crosslicense with you. Otherwise you are completely at their mercy and you have to hope that they just let you pay the money.

      Is someone else asking?

Sir, what was the reason for the development of the software patent?

Well, in the US, there was no reason, somebody tried to get a patent,  that was a software patent, and, I think, the patent office said no, so he took it to court and eventually went to the supreme court and they, they didn't judge it as a public policy question, they judged it in terms of what did the law say.

So was it not the realisation that ..

        Sorry, I can't ... could you try to pronounce your consonants more clearly, I'm having trouble understanding the words.

So was it not the realisation that copyright is notoriously weak for protecting software?

Copyright is not only what?

Notoriously weak...

        Well, I think the whole sentence is not sensible, I don't understand the term protecting software, and I don't agree with you.

Most programmers don't agree with you.

So when you are saying that you are not favouring protection of  software and you yourself is giving General Public Licence, where do you get that power to issue General Public Licence?

        OK, you are asking questions about copyright and Free Software which is not the topic now, I will accept questions about that later on, but I gave the speech about software patents and i want to answer questions about software patents.

Sir I have a question about software patents, the thing is that how can one protect where there is a functional element ...

        Protect what?

Functional element ...

        What is gonna happen to them?

Sir, how can we get a protection when there is a... 

        Protection from what ? Somebody gonna come with a gun ?

No Sir ...

        Basically the protection you need is the protection against being sued for the program you wrote, programmers need protection from software patents.

No it is not the programmers themselves sir, they are companies who have invested in something ?

        And you what the company get sued because in your large program there are five different things that somebody, that five different people already patented. Now its clear to see the myth that you are operating on, its the naive idea that when you develop the program you will have the patent. Well, the idea, that very statement contains a mistake because there is no such thing as 'will patent' when you develop a program with many different things in it, there are many things each of which might be patented by somebody else already, and you find out about them one by one when they come to you saying either "pay us a lot of money or else shut down" and when you duel with five of them you never know when number six is going to come along. It's much safer to be in the software field if you know you are not going to get sued as long as you wrote the program yourself.

         That's the way was before software patents - if you wrote the program yourself there is nothing to sue you about. Today you can write the program yourself, it may even be an useful and innovative program but because you didn't reinvent the whole field, you use some ideas that were already known, other people sue you. Of course, those people who wanna go around suing you, they are going to pretend that this extortion is protection for them, protection from what, protection from having competitors, I guess, they don't believe in competition, they want monopolies.    

        Well, to hell with them. It's not good for the public that they should get what they want, this is the question of public policy. We have to decide what is good for the citizens generally.


        Not have somebody saying "I wanna have a monopoly because I think I am so important, so I should have one, so protect me from anybody else being allowed to develop software."

You are suggesting that we should avoid making a battleground for patency, don't we still have to see the problem that there are a lot of American products  being sold here and...


.. and  we are still going to be mistaken..?

        No! No, you misunderstood, US developers may be in trouble because of the patent system and what effect will that  have, it means that their certain products that  wouldn't be coming from the US and therefore they wouldn't be sold in the US or here. You see, if the developer is in the US and there is a US software patent, that software developer is going to get sued there, whether or not he tries with anybody in India he is going to get sued. But the fact that he is distributing the program in India is not going to cause him an additional problem because that is under the jurisdiction of India, that's the one thing he will not get sued for. So, basically, what it means is whatever exists can be distributed in India, safely ,and the developers who are lucky enough to be in India would be safe from this kind of gang warfare, and those who are unlucky enough to be in the US will not be safe.

Sir, are you basically against the very concept of intellectual property rights ?

As I said in the beginning, it is foolish even to think about that topic, that topic is an overgeneralisation. It lumps together totally different things like copyrights and patents and so any opinion about co-intellectual property is a foolish one. I don't  have an opinion about intellectual property, I have  opinions about copyrights and I have completely different opinions about patents and even in the area of patents, know, I have different opinions in different fields. Even that area is a big area. And then their trademarks which are also called intellectual property,
I think trademarks are basically a good idea.

        The US has taken trademarks all little too far. But, basically it is reasonable to have labels that you can rely on. So you shouldn't try  to have an opinion about intellectual property. If you are thinking about intellectual property, you are thinking at a simplistic level. And any conclusions you reach will be simplistic. So do as I do, you know, pick one topic at a time and focus on it and find out the details about that one area, then you can think intelligently about that area and later on you can think intelligently about the other areas too.

So there is an argument that if particular intellectual property right is not protected ...

        I'm sorry,what you are saying makes no sense at all and is  at a foolish general level....

Let me complete sir,  if that particular intellectual property right is not protected, it may impede the investment, and this impedement ...

        This generalistic thinking is so simplistic, it's totally stupid. It makes no sense at all. There is no principle of intellectual property. Copyrights and patents and trademarks originated completely separately, they have nothing in common, except later somebody else made up this term "intellectual property" to call them all while.  

Sir, will you extend this concept to the physical property?

        No, I'm sorry, none of these things has anything to do with the physical property rights, they are totally different. What do you say extend "this concept" ? Which is this "concept" ? The idea that the term "intellectual property" is a generalisation that leads you into simplistic thinking. Should we apply that to physical property? No, they are totally different. They have nothing in common.

So the basis under which this intellectual property is protected is "protect the labour", "intellectual labour"?

        No! No, you are totally wrong, you are totally wrong. The purpose of you have been brainwashed, you have been listening to the propaganda of the companies that want to have these monopolies. If you ask what legal scholars say is the basis of these systems. They say that their attempts, for copyrights and for patents, their attempts to manipulate the behaviour of people to get benefit for the public. Trademarks are a different issue, I think the issues for trademark are completely different. So you are making  an overgeneralisation also.

So why can't we extend the very same principle ...

        But in any case, your principle is wrong and if  you take a look at that economic research on you will see that  you are making naive statements, naive blind statements that are simply not true. You got the silly idea that creating a monopoly over some aspect of life always invariably makes that aspect of life thrive. Well this is dumb. Occasionally it might work, and occasionally it causes a lot of troubles.   

Don't you think that the same kind of monopoly is created in favour of a party when he owns a physical property?

        I'm sorry, I can't hear you.

Sir, don't you think that the same kind of monopoly rights are created if a particular physical property is allowed to be owned by a person, just like an intellectual property ?

Physical property can only be in one place at a time, you know, only one person can sit in a chair at a time in the normal way. You know these are totally different issues, you know trying to generalise to the utmost is a foolish thing to do, you are doing with complicated words that have many, many, many complicated details and you are asking us to ignore all these details and you are doing with words that have complicated effects in various fields and you are asking us to ignore the details of their effects. Don't bother judging this program by its results. I think that  if we were talking about a public policy issue, we got to look at the actual results of the policy, not some myths to what results a certain ideology would predict, I'm telling you the real results, I'm telling you what I have seen and what other programmers have seen.

Sir,what about the LZW  patent? Is it ..

        What about the 'what'?

LZW patent ?

        The LZW patent?

Yeah. Is it still in effect?

        Yes, it is. Well,there are two LZW patents as I explained to you and they are both still in effect 

Sir, so its for 20 years?

        Yeah, it's not 20 years yet.

Sir, can we reduce the scope of the problem by reducing the period of the patent ?

        Definitely, you could. If there were software patents, but they only lasted for, say, 5 years or three years, that would mostly solve the problem. Yes it's a pain to have to wait 3 or 5 years, but it's much, much less of a pain. But, but there is  a difficulty there. The GATT agreements say that patents must last 20 years. So the only way you could have something like a software pattern which lasted for 3 or 5 years is as follows.

        First, make it clear that ordinary patents do not apply and second, if you wish you could create this different system of five-year software idea monopolies. Well, it's not clear that there is any particular benefit in this five-year software monopolies but it would be much better in the current situation. So if you found the government prepared to make this deal, well, I would say, we should take it. But, but we have to realise, though, that the first step is to abolish software patents strictly speaking, and that has to be part of this deal.

So and patent has also now become victim of ...

        I'm sorry , I couldn't hear you, could you speak louder?

Sir, patent has now become a way of making money by businesses rather than promoting inventions?

        Yes, a lot of them use it that way

So, sir, can we reduce this problem further by assigning the patent to the actual inventor rather than a business ... ?

        Not really. What you find is that, that aspect of the relationship between the employee and the business is something that gets negotiated and the business has more cloud, so they are always going in the end of ranging to have the employee and the patent of the company. The other thing is that it doesn't make a big difference who owns the patent. The point is that you are prohibited from developing a program using that idea and  it may make some difference precisely who has the power to sue you. But what you really want is not to be sued on. So why look for a half measure like this ? Or its much better just to say that software shouldn't have patents ?

        Okay, if you gonna pass a note, you better read it out loud. Any other questions?

People who are being to Malaysia say that, if we buy a PC there, the amount of money  we would pay for all the standard software is about a tenth of what we should pay in this country. In Malaysia they are little more relaxed about patents and copyrights ?

        Well, are you not sure what you are talking about, you seem to mixing together copyrights and patents, I'm not sure what you are talking about has anything to do with the issue of software patents.

Precisely what I want to know is about... this is something to do with patents..?

        Probably not.

Different countries depending on how much, whether they are part of WTO or not part of WTO ... 

        No, no.

... I think matter ...

        You see, I don't know for certain because I don't know what's going on their either, I'd never been there but I suspect that it's a matter of copyrights and has nothing to do with patents, because if you are talking about the same programs, remember, software patents are primarily a restriction on software developers. So it's the same program that was developed, say, in the US, the patent problems they have are independent of, you know, the patent problems they have are biggest in the US, not in either India or Malaysia, so, that probably has to do with copyrights not patents and that's a totally different issue, we mustn't  lump these issues together.


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