Model Enginnering College

Talk by Richard M. Stallman 

The Danger of Software Patents

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Sir earlier you've told that ...

        I'm sorry I can't hear you.

Earlier in your speech you've told that software that should be brought under the purvey of patents.. is what you defined that as what can be run on a general purpose machine.

        I'm afraid I can't ... can anyone understand what he's saying ? I cannot understand your words. If you make an attempt to enunciate more clearly I may be able to understand.

You had spoken earlier that software that should be patented is, you defined that as, software that can be run on a general purpose machine ...

        I'm sorry I didn't say that software should be patented, so I just cant make out these words. Maybe if you tell that to someone else, the other person could say it I could  understand.

Software patents, like whatever you call software patents, like those are what can be run on a general purpose machine. So if some algorithm or some piece of software is capable of being executed on a general purpose machine, it should not be patented.

        Yes. Now I can hear you, yes. One of the things I proposed was that patent should not apply to software for general purpose machines or the use of it on those general  purpose machines. So that if you develop that program or if you are using that program you couldn't be sued.

We've an increasing number of software now being run on a general purpose machine.

        Well, then that would be covered still by software patents so there wouldn't be a total a solution, but at least there would be a partial solution.

So if the defining line is general purpose machines, don't you see there's a possibility that people could find loopholes in it, like, to find or workarounds for ...

        I'm sorry do I see a possibility for people would do what ?

... of finding loopholes or workarounds of converting what you would call software patents into get it actually patented.

        I'm sorry I do not understand. Loopholes to do .. I'm sorry. What people would do, what software developers would do in that situation is use general purpose machines more.

Some algorithm can be run on a general purpose machine - what I'd say that that algorithm I'm using it for some embedded device and go ahead and patent it.

        Why you could try it, you misunderstood. The point is that, you misunderstood what the solution is. the solution is that if I'm using in developing the software on general purpose machines then nobody can sue me for patent infringement. So yes, somebody could get a patent and may be he could sue others who are doing specialised things which involve particular hardware. But they couldn't sue me.

Excuse me sir, may I ask a question.


Sir, you spoke of general purpose machines. In the sense, how would you define these machines, because these days you have a lot of custom made handheld devices etc. Now some way ...

        No, hand held computers are general purpose when they are not designed to carry out a specific computation or a specific physical process. They're general purpose computers. They have general purpose computer chips in them.

Then the idea would be contestable in a court of law as together it's a general purpose ...

        I guess, what has to be, yeah. The precise details of drawing these lines, one ends up having to leave to judges.

thank you sir.

Germany and France, the only countries  who has said no to patents  in Europe ... 

        Well, I don't know the full situation. Those are the just the ones I know of. The last time there was a vote there were going to be a majority of no votes, and so they dropped the issue. And I don't remember the other countries.

There's no European community decision on this ...

        Not yet. In fact, the European Commission itself is divided. One
of the agencies - the one which unfortunately is the lead agency on this issue - has been won over by multinationals and is in favour of software patents and then the agency that's trusted to encourage software development is against them, and so they're trying to work against it. So somebody who want to get in touch with the official incharge of the agency that is opposed to software patents, I can put them in touch.

Is there any country that said 'no' to software patents ?

        Well, there are countries which don't have them, but it's not clear that there's any country which has affirmed this recently.

Sir, could you please elaborate on the benefits the software development community got in European countries from this policy ?

        Well, the benefit is you don't have to be afraid someone will sue you because of some of the ideas were a combination of the ideas that you used in a program you wrote. Basically software patents mean that if you write a program, somebody else might sue you  and say you're not allowed to write that program. The benefits of not having software patents is you're from that.

        Now in India you've probably taken for granted that you're safe from that. But that will only long as long as they're no software patents in India.

Are there any threats to India not acceding to software regime ?

        Well there's no software regime. The GATT agreement doesn't require software patents. There's no treaty requiring software patents.

Most people, if they had a chance to get a patent and make a lot of money out of it, they wouldn't pass it up ...

        Well, many people if they had a chance to get a gun and make a lot of money of it wouldn't pass it up.

        The point is, therefore, let me try not to hand them that opportunity. You know, since we don't have a government agency handing out guns to people on the steet we should not have a government agency handing out software patents to people on the street either.

Being an advocate of this non-patency, have you ever faced any ...

        I'm having trouble hearing you. Please try to make an effort to pronounce every sound clearly that I might understand. 

... You being an advocate of this non-patency, have you faced any problems with this multinationals or something ?

        have I faced any problems ..

... so far in your life ? 

        I'm sorry. What did he say?

Have you faced any problems with multi-nationals in your life ?

        Well, there are many. In the community where I develop software, there are many examples of programs that had their features taken out, programs that didn't have the features put in the first place, programs that were not even written for many years, because of this.  There are many examples of jobs we can't do, because we're not allowed to do them.

        Now we collected examples of this and were looking for people to write them up. You've to look at each example and investigate it fully and write down a clear description of what happened and what the harm was and so on. We had had trouble finding people to do this. We're looking for more. So someone who is really good at writing clear English might want to volunteer for this.

I think he asked whether you had any threat to you by any multinational companies ...

       Well they never threatened my life !

Yeah that's the question !

       But they do threaten our work. Now they threaten to sue us.

Volunteer: There's a question from a gentleman at the back: If the multinational companies that produce hardware, like Intel, coming to a contract coming to a contract with big software companies to restrict Free Software by changing the microprocessor pattents, how will you overcome such a hazard ? 

        I see very little danger of that. Intel recently developed a new computer architecture,and far from trying to stop us from supporting it, they hired people to implement it.

        So it looks like we should now we move to Free Software  questions. I'd like to remind people that until this last answer, I was not speaking for the Free Software movement. I was speaking of something of vital interest to every programmer which is to be free to write programs and not get sued for having written them as long as you wrote them yourself. And that's the freedom that you've taken for granted until now and that's the freedom you will loose if you have software patents. 

        Now however we're moving to the topic of Free Software, which is what I spent most of my time working on, and the individual,  actual software development project that I've lead which is developing the GNU operating system, which is a Free Software, Unix-like operating system used by some twenty million people estimated today. So I am going to answer questions on Free Software and GNU.

In the absence of a concrete revenue model for Free Software, will this also go bust like the dotcoms ?

        I can't predict the future but I want to remind you that the dotcoms were businesses. And Free Software is not primarily a  business. There are some Free Software businesses. Whether they will succeed or ultimately fail, I don't know. But those businesses do contribute to our community, but they are not what our community is all about. What our community is all about is having the freedom to redistribute and study and change software. A lot of Free Software is developed by volunteers and the amount is increasing and, no matter what happens with the companies that's not going away. 

I understand companies like IBM are also investing considerably in making their systems and software compatible with free source code like Linux ...

       You mean GNU ?

All right ...

       Yes, they call it Linux. Actually the system is mainly GNU and Linux is one of the pieces.

[From audience] The kernel is hardly eighteen percent.

        Well, really, that much? What I saw is three percent.

[From audience] You can see through a needle. Very insignificant.

But, I also understand that they've invested around a billion  dollars in doing so. Now my question is ...

        Well that's not true.

My question is, for a service that has no revenue model, will this be sustainable in the future and if I change my business onto ...

        I'm sorry I can't predict the future. No one can.

How can I ...

        Some god men can predict the future. I'm not. I'm a rationalist.

        I can't tell you what's going to happen. What I can tell you is that what IBM claims to have put a billion dollars into the GNU plus Linux operating system, that's no entirely true. You've to look carefully on what they're spending this money on, and you'll find they are spending this money on various different things, some contribute and some don't.

        For instance, they are funding some work on developing the GNU/Linux system. That's good, that contributes. They do develop some other Free Software packages that they've contributed to the community. That's a real contribution.

        They are also developing many non-free programs to make them run with the GNU/Linux system and that is not a contribution. And they are publicising the system, well, it's not a primary contribution, but it does help. You know, having more user is not our primary goal. But it's nice if more people  would try our software, so that does help, but then they're mistakenly calling this Linux which is not quite right, and they're lobbying for software patents in Europe, which is bad, so, yeah IBM is doing many different things, some are good and some are bad, and if you want to have a full view, it's important  to look at the individual actions. Do not try to add it up because that just means you're missing the important aspects of the situation.

       Are there any more questions ?


This question is not about patent or copyright or anything like that. But this is one example what you said about - if statement and while statement - that you said something about the differences in the field of computer science and differences other sciences, that is other  engineering sciences. You said that if I change something in the if loop that's if statement, there won't be any effect, that you said ...

        No I didn't say that.

You said that! You said that there isn't any heating effect. I remember that ...

        I'm sorry, I know what I said. I said something that's partly similar to that ...

I'll tell the exact statement: you said there won't any heating effect.

        Any whating effect ?

Heating effect. Heating ...

        Oh yes we don't have to worry about how much heat is ...

Yeah, yeah, exactly. Then what is it that cascading effect ? If I change the structure of the loop, there will be an effect.

        Oh sure. The program will behave differently when you change it, but I'm not saying that writing every program is easy that we never make mistakes. I listed a lot of specific kinds of problems, that would plague a mechanical or electrical engineer at every little detail, even if each detail gets to be very hard for them. Worse for us, the problems are because we do so much, we're doing it so fast, we don't think carefully about each one thing. So we make mistakes.

So you admit that there's an effect. 

        Of course. I never said otherwise, I'm sorry if you thought so. Sure if you change a program it's going to do different  things.

Sir, can you comment on the commercial distributions ?

        Well, you asked me to comment on the commercial distributions of GNU/Linux systems ? Well, I think that's fine. That's one of the freedoms Free Software gives you - the freedom to use it in business, the freedom to distribute it as part of the business, the freedom to sell copies in exchange for money. these are all legitimate.

        Now, one thing I'm unhappy about is what the companies do this is that they add some non-free software to it. 

That's the installation program ?

        Yeah, any non-free software. Because the goal was you should  be able to get a completely free operating system. Well, if I have a thing in a store which says I'm the GNU/Linux system, the public says Linux, but inside it there are some non-free programs, now you're not getting  something that's entirely free anymore. It doesn't entirely respect your freedom. So the real goal for which we wrote the system is being lost.

        So that's a major problem our community faces now. The tendency to put free software together with non-free software and make these non-free overall systems. And then, you know, it might seem that  the software is a success because many people are using it. But if you look at our real goal, our real goal is not popularity. Our real goal is to spread a community of freedom and we're not  succeeding in doing that if the people are using non-free software systems. 

        Unfortunately, I couldn't give both speeches. I can give a speech about software patents, or I can give a speech about free software. They're very different and each one of them is a long speech. So unfortunately what it means is that I can't explain about Free Software and the GNU project here. Am I giving anther speech in Kochi? Am I giving the Free Software speech in Kochi?


        Oh well. I gave that speech in Trivandrum.

        So I'll answer five more questions and then I have to call it quits because it gets to be quite draining to answer so many.

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