The Coding Monkey

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

How the GPL Will Kill Free Software

MSNBC has an article about a proposed update to the GNU Public License:

The free software association said on Tuesday it would start adapting rules for development and use of free software by including penalties against those who patent software or use anti-piracy technology.
The license needs to be adapted to a world in which e-commerce firms like have patented 'one click ordering' which prevents software makers from freely using such a feature in their programs, said the president of the Free Software Foundation Europe, Georg Greve.

"Software patents are clearly a menace to society and innovation. We like this to be more explicit. The basic idea is that if someone patents software, he loses the right to use free software. It's like a patent retaliation clause," Greve said.

Such a clause may have a big impact, because many commercial companies have benefited from free software. The GPL is employed by tens of thousands of software projects, and companies and governments around the world use it in their software or services.

In essence what GNU is doing is to declare war on anyone who dares to make a profit off of software by patenting software processes. I think this could backfire severely on the free software movement. Before I continue, I do think that some of the patents that have been granted to software companies are nuts. Many of these stupid patents (Microsoft's IsNot patent, Amazon's One Click Ordering patent, and Microsoft's Text Highlighting patent) should never have been granted. The reason is because they clearly exist in prior art, or because they're not novel (both being requirements for a patent). But their abuse doesn't make all software patents evil, it simply means that the USPTO needs an overhaul to allow them to be more effective at their lawful purpose. They obviously don't understand what currently exists in prior art or is novel in the context of software. This is understandable as software patents are a relatively new enterprise for the USPTO.

With that said, I do think this will backfire for GNU. The reason I say this is because much of the GPL'd software out there right now is provided to the public by companies that hold software patents, or would like to have software patents. While much of the free software community see GPL'd software as a movement for all to fully embrace, most companies do not. They see the GPL more as charity work, or a donation back to the software community. They view it as something to give back to others. While this may seem like an insult to many people out there who subsist on GPL'd software and code, one should not look a gift horse in the mouth.

If you reject these companies because they also hold software patents, you won't find them giving up on the idea of patenting software. Instead you'll find that they'll give up on providing as much GPL'd software as they use. That would be a loss to the free software community that it simply cannot afford.


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