[OT] Free software versus software idea patents (was: Python benefits over Cobra)

Steven D'Aprano steve+comp.lang.python at pearwood.info
Thu Apr 7 09:39:55 CEST 2011


On Thu, 07 Apr 2011 07:50:56 +1000, Ben Finney wrote:

> Steven D'Aprano <steve+comp.lang.python at pearwood.info> writes:
> 
>> Mono is free, open source software that is compatible with .NET
> […]
> 
> It's difficult to take a claim of “free” seriously for a technology
> (Mono) that knowingly implements techniques (the “C#” language, the
> “.NET” platform, etc.) covered by specific idea patents held by an
> entity that demonstrates every intention of wielding them to restrict
> the freedom of software recipients.

It's astonishing how anti-Mono FUD just won't die. (Something can be 
true, and still FUD. "Oh no, people might *choke* on a peanut, or have an 
allergic reaction, we must label every piece of food May Contain Nuts 
just in case, because you never know!!!")

Let's reword your concern slightly:


    It's difficult to take a claim of “free” seriously for 
    technologies (including, but not limited to, HTML, CSS, C++, 
    XML, Public Key Cryptography, packet-based multimedia, IPv6)
    that knowingly or unknowingly [the later not being a defence 
    against infringement] implement techniques covered by specific 
    idea patents held by an entity that allegedly demonstrates 
    every intention, or at least some intention, of wielding them 
    to restrict the freedom of software recipients.


Perhaps every piece of software should be labeled May Infringe Patents.

I've seen a lot of FUD about Mono, but nothing to suggest that it is at 
more risk than any other piece of non-trivial software. As far as I know, 
there is only one major piece of FOSS that *has* actually been sued for 
patent infringement, and it's not Mono.


> Software idea patents are incompatible with free software. Every
> non-trivial program likely violates countless such patents, but most of
> those patents are not yet enforced even in the unlucky jurisdictions
> where they are recognised by law.

Right. So why single out Mono? Python likely violates "countless" such 
patents, so obviously we can't take the idea of Python being free 
seriously either. Same with Perl, and the Linux kernel, and the entire 
Gnu tool set. As you say, quite probably every piece of non-trivial 
software you have used, or ever will use, or write, infringes.

By this logic, we can't take the idea of FOSS software seriously at all, 
since no software can be expected to be free from infringing some patent 
somewhere.

But of course, the conclusion does not follow from the premise. Yes, Mono 
is at risk from patents, *possibly even from Microsoft*. So is everything 
else. So why single out Mono as non-serious?

(Although it is in Microsoft's best interest to tolerate Mono. It's in 
their best interests to tolerate FOSS. And as their recent actions show:

http://www.betanews.com/article/Microsoft-cozies-up-to-open-source-donates-100000-to-Apache/1217018107
http://www.crunchgear.com/2009/07/24/linus-torvalds-speaks-out-on-the-microsoft-gpl-code-contribution/

at least parts of Microsoft have finally come to recognise this.)

More here:

http://www.jprl.com/Blog/archive/development/mono/2009/Jan-19.html


> Microsoft, though, is clearly a vigorous enforcer of software idea
> patents they hold. They have been very cagey about stating what they
> will and won't enforce about patents they hold on .NET – and none of
> those statements are binding.

This is complete FUD. I suggest you start with this:

http://www.microsoft.com/interop/cp/default.mspx

Perhaps what you mean is, none of the licences granted are *irrevocable*. 
But the same applies to the GPL -- break the GPL's (generous) terms, and 
you too could find that your licence is revoked.

Is it possible that there could be portions of .NET or Mono which are 
unclear patent-wise? Of course it is possible, it's even likely. Software 
patents are truly a mess. But there is zero evidence I have seen that Mono 
is more of a mess patent-wise, or more of a risk, than any other non-trivial 
piece of software. With large portions of Mono protected by the Microsoft 
Community Promise licence, it may even be that Mono is *safer* than most 
FOSS software.

Microsoft is far less vigorous at enforcing patents than many other 
companies. (This is possibly a bad thing, when they darkly drop hints 
that there are secret patent infringements in Linux and some day there 
will be a reckoning...) Given the tens, or is it hundreds, of thousands 
of patents they hold, they've barely used them.

Do you want to know who scares me? Google and Apple. Google, because 
they're turning software from something you run on your own computer to 
something you use on a distant server you have no control over. And 
Apple, because they're turning the computer from a general purpose 
computing device you control, to a locked-down, restricted, controlled 
specialist machine that only runs what they permit you to run. But I 
digress.


> The freedom of a software work isn't a matter of the copyright license
> alone; it's a matter of the freedoms each recipient has in the work.
> What the copyright license grants, the applicable patents held by
> demonstrably litigious parties can take away.
> 
>> http://ubuntu-tutorials.com/2007/03/13/squashing-a-few-myths-about-mono-development/
> 
> It squashes some myths, but does not address the restrictions imposed by
> the .NET software idea patents at all AFAICT.
> 
> Here are some links that do address this:
> 
>     <URL:http://nocturn.vsbnet.be/content/get-facts-mono>
>     <URL:http://www.fsf.org/news/dont-depend-on-mono>

The first URL is by Guy Van Sanden, who wrote:

"I will not watch and stand by while we expose the Free Software desktop 
to MS extortion racket."

http://nocturn.vsbnet.be/content/cleaning-mono-your-system#comment-2665

Extortion racket, huh?

He also describes Microsoft as "one of the biggest patent trolls on the 
planet". That's palpably untrue: one might not approve of Microsoft's 
behaviour, or of software patents in general, but they certainly don't 
meet any of the characteristics of patent trolling:

http://www.informationweek.com/blog/main/archives/2010/05/is_microsoft_a.html

Judging by his posts, I don't believe that gvansanden is a reliable,
unbiased source for "facts about Mono".

And for the second, Richard Stallman's post merely takes as a given that 
"Microsoft is probably planning to force all free C# implementations 
underground some day". Planning, he says. Does he have any evidence for 
this? How sure is he about that "probably"? Is that 99.999% sure, or 
50.001% sure? Microsoft can *plan* to build their corporate headquarters 
on the Sun, for all I care, what are their chances of succeeding?

Stallman even says that it's a good thing that there are free 
implementations of C#, and points out that there's a GNU version of C# 
too. He doesn't call for the removal of Mono, but merely that we should 
avoid encouraging people to use C# *just in case*.

Look, patent threats are real, but we don't gain anything by exaggerating
the threat, and we *especially* don't gain anything by treating one patent
holder as the Devil Incarnate while ignoring threats from others.



-- 
Steven



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