Free Software policy issues at LinuxCon Europe


I’m just back from LinuxCon Europe in Prague. Linux Foundation had invited me to come over and speak about current policy issues in Free Software.

Here’s what I covered:

  • That old favourite, software patents. They’ve always been a nuisance and an unmitigated economic disaster. But recently, patent litigation has acquired a new toxic quality. These days, software patents provide a means for corporations to fend off competitors. Apple’s legal campaign against Android is one example. Microsoft’s ongoing extortion racket (aka licensing deals for a product Microsoft had no hand in creating) are another. This is why FSFE has worked hard this year to prevent even more software patents from falling into Microsoft’s hands. We had a lot of success with the Novell sale. The Nortel patent deal is still up in the air, but we’re continuing to work with competition authorities.
  • The SAS vs WPL case, which hasn’t gotten a lot of attention so far. Business analytics software giant SAS sued a small UK company, World Programming Limited (WPL), for copyright infringement. WPL had reverse-engineered SAS software, so that users could run the scripts they had created for SAS on WPL’s (presumably much cheaper) software. SAS argued that in doing so, WPL had infringed its copyright on interfaces, functions and its programming language. That’s interesting, because none of these things are actually copyrightable!
    Accordingly, the UK judge ruled that WPL had done nothing wrong. But since he felt the question was of fundamental importance, he asked the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to decide on the matter. We’re expecting a decision for the end of this year. If the ECJ decided that interfaces, functions, and programming languages are indeed covered by copyright, we’d be looking at a fecoventilatory collision of considerable scale. For example, Microsoft could sue LibreOffice for copyright infringement. Not a pretty prospect. To avoid this, it’s essential that the ECJ judges understand what’s at stake.
  • SecureBoot. The topic has been lurking in the background for a while, and has now hit center stage. After FSF published a statement (go sign it), now there’s a (LWN article, statement by Canonical / Red Hat [pdf], Linux Foundation White Paper ). Basically, the question is whether the upcoming successor of the BIOS standard will  turn our general-purpose desktop and laptop computers into something as locked-down as the iPhone. The outcome is very much open, and the battle is on.

Besides these focus topics, I also mentioned a few other things we’re currently working on at FSFE. The European Commission has got it into its head that “cybersecurity” can be improved by outlawing tools that can be used to breach computer systems. This not only shows a touching faith in the power of law over reality; it also could mean that basic security audit tools such as nmap or wireshark are outlawed. It’s a badly drafted proposal, and we’re in the process of telling the European Parliament how to do it better.

Public procurement continues to be a problem. Practices that effectively exclude Free Software are widespread. These things hurt competition in the market, make innovation more difficult, and waste taxpayers’ money. We’re talking to public bodies and governments around Europe, pointing out these problems and advising on how to do it better.

Finally, I mentioned Horizon 2020, the European Union’s upcoming framework program for research and development. (If you’re involved with any European-funded project, this concerns you. It also does if you pay taxes.) From 2013 to 2020, the EU is going to spend 80 billion Euro on research and development. We would like to make sure that the results of this research are made available in a way that lets European citizens and companies benefit from what they’ve paid for with their taxes.

The conclusion is that while Free Software is winning on technology, we need to get stronger on policy. Free Software companies, developers and users need to be speak up more loudly for their interests. Free Software has grown into a huge industry. That’s great. But it also means that we’re increasingly being dragged into the nasty games that corporations play with each other. This is a natural consequence of Free Software’s success, and there’s no way to avoid it. So we need to get better at making our voices heard. At FSFE, we’ve been doing this for a decade. To support us, you can donate or become a Fellow.