Is Free Software a reason for trade war?

In Washington, a groups called the “International Intellectual
Property Alliance” (IIPA) has demanded that the US government should
punish a number of countries that make use of Free Software.

The IIPA’s extremist stance on copyright matters is well known. But
this is probably the first time that they’re singling out Free
Software as something that merits trade retaliation from the US
government. Given that the Business Software Alliance is among the
IIPA’s members, the only thing that surprises me is that they took
so long to do it. BSA members must really be feeling the heat from
Free Software.

As a lobby group with a well-known stance (and presumably rock-solid
financing), IIPA couldn’t care less about the backlash they’re
getting. Their job is to get the USTR to believe their claims, and
put countries on the (Priority) Watch lists accordingly.

(Quick reminder: The USTR 301/Special 301 is a process where US
companies get to ask the government to put up trade restrictions
against countries that do things that aren’t in the companies’

The real risk is that the US Trade Representative (USTR) actually
starts believing that Free Software is somehow bad for US trade. If
the US government decides to bring their powerful arsenal of trade
weapons to bear on countries that make use of Free Software, it will
do a lot of damage. Our sister organisation, the FSF in the United
States, has made a comment to the USTR highlighting how the Special
301 process is being abused to spread digital restrictions
management (DRM).

The IIPA’s claims are mistaken and contradictory in themselves. The
IIPA says that policies or even just recommendations in favour of
Free Software “weaken the software industry” and “fail to promote
respect for intellectual property rights”.

Both claims are nonsense. Free Software actually strengthens the
local software industry, because it lets local people develop skills
in programming and administration. It also allows local businesses
to retain a higher share of value added, as I’ve argued before, and
makes countries less dependent on imports. This is Indonesian,
Indian or Vietnamese money that will get spent in Indonesia, India,
or Vietnam rather than in the US – which is precisely what irks the
IIPA. It’s actually ironic that they chose to highlight this aspect.

Interestingly, the IIPA doesn’t complain about European countries
that make heavy use of Free Software, such as Spain and the

How the IIPA arrives at the ludicrous claim that Free Software fails
“to promote respect for intellectual property rights” is beyond
me. Sure, blind faith in copyright and patents is pretty rare among
people in the Free Software community. But “respect”? The authors of
the IIPA’s filings obviously have never witnessed any of the
countless debates on both general principles and arcane details of
Free Software licensing that take place every day.

Who should correct the IIPA’s outrageous claims? All of us. These
views don’t just come from a bunch of copyright radicals in
Washington. The mythical link between a preference for proprietary
software (which is what doing nothing means effectively, thanks to
network effects) on the one hand, and openness to trade or higher
levels of innovation on the other hand is constantly used by
proprietary lobbyists around the world to argue against Free
Software and Open Standards. In fact, the opposite is
true. Proprietary software always has monopolistic tendencies and
therefore reduces both innovation and openness to trade.

But the IIPA’s lies directly concern US companies that profit from
Free Software. IBM, Red Hat, Oracle (hey, you just bought a lot of
Free Software brands!) and many others are all making good money
with Free Software, much of it outside the US. If Free Software
comes to be seen as something that’s somehow bad for trade, that
will hurt their business.