Will Microsoft support the development agenda at WIPO?

Jonathan Murray, Microsoft’s CTO for the EMEA region felt compelled to comment on our recent announcement of the GPLv3 revision process for 2006. Naturally, I was interested to see what he had to say. Unfortunately he only seemed to go about confusion that had already been clarified. But let me still repeat some of those clarifications for your sake, Jonathan.

You are indeed very right that it makes no sense at all to try and deny anyone in possession of patents the use of Free Software. Many journalists realised this was an odd statement and thus immediately came back to us asking whether this was truly what we had said. As I told them, let me also tell you: We are considering for the GPLv3 a kind of stronger patent defense clause to protect Free Software authors from offensive use of software patents against them. What is in the GPL already may not be explicit enough, which is why this is one point we consider. You can find another example of such a clause in the Mozilla Public License (MPL) and it seems that Firefox is doing quite well with this clause. Companies like IBM and HP included.

You made your second point about DRM. That is an issue I believe we could have a very interesting and long conversation about, although most of that would have nothing to do with the GNU General Public License (GPL). But there is one connection: Given that software and source code are also stored on a computer, DRM and TC are both issues that directly concern all programmers and users in their basic freedoms to use, study, modify and distribute computer programs. This is what we are worried about regarding the GPL.

As the basic assumption was flawed, it came as no surprise that you would come to wrong conclusions. But I have to admit being tempted to open a general discussion on DRM with you: Given that users lose all rights and become subject to absolute control over what they can or cannot do with their computers, I find "Digital Rights Management" to be highly euphemistic, quite frankly. Digital Restriction Measures would seem a more descriptive term.

DRM is a solution in search of a problem: As Felix Oberholzer of Harvard Business School and Koleman Strumpf of UNC Chapel Hill found out to their great surprise, the assumption "if someone downloads a movie or song, that means lost sale" is obvious, intuitive and wrong. They conducted a study, setting out to measure the effect, sure they would come to shocking results. The results shocked them more than anything they expected to find: "Downloads have an effect on sales which is statistically indistinguishable from zero, despite rather precise estimates."

The media industry is clearly in crisis, but that crisis is only remotely connected to digitalisation, which has changed the rules of the game, but these days mainly serves as a convenient scapegoat in denial of reality. Artists like Courtney Love at times speak out and explain the real problem — unfortunately not enough people stop to think about it.

Instead of embracing change and adapting to it, the media industry seeks to enforce the same old structures that Ms Love describes on the digital world. Their motivation is fear of change. Their tool is DRM. And yes, if Free Software does not implement DRM in a way that gives them a false sense of security, it may mean we won’t be able to play the new HD-DVDs, just as we initially weren’t able to play DVDs of any kind.

After all, we both know that was your main motivation to push for TC and DRM in the first place: By encouraging the fear of the media industry about high-seas ship robbery, you prepared yourself to point them to an easy answer, knowing that if they went down that path, they would become ultimately dependent on you — knowing full well that only you would be able to offer them a "sufficient" level of control over your users.

My compliments on how you managed to make the media industry think you were their friend, that it would be beneficial for them to have all their distribution channels depend ultimately on your single company.

Regarding the "internet tax" that you chose for the title of your blog entry, let me briefly point out this is not something I advocate, although I do follow the discussion around it as an interested bystander.

I know of social studies that most people have a certain budget for culture that they will spend at maximum, which is a very fixed number. No matter how much DRM, advertisement or whatever else you dump on them, they will not go beyond that amount. On the other hand, people are willing to spend that amount on culture, and the only reason they would not do so is because they can’t do it in a convenient way. In other words: There is a relatively stable influx of money that is pretty constant, but you can cut yourself off from it by not meeting the demands of the market.

Instead of spending 95-98% of that influx on "system maintenance", on trying to enforce on people what they should want, some people have advocated the concept of a "cultural flatrate" on internet connections in combination with legalising all downloads and file sharing. Their calculations seem to indicate that artists and authors would get a good deal more this way, as we’d be able to cut down on the infrastructure costs a lot.

Whether their calculations are solid, I cannot say. Whether all artists or authors could do "creation on demand" models, which were another example I mentioned, I also cannot say.

It was this digression — which was equally caused by a misunderstanding of the DRM issue — that was compressed into the single statement you responded to. Neither FSFE nor me advocate these models, but I personally think they deserve fair consideration.

It is funny that you would bring the digital divide into this, though: An "internet tax" in richer countries was indeed advocated by some participants of the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) to finance closing the digital divide.

I can’t say that I necessarily share that view, but then I can’t help but notice that if we were to move to a cultural flatrate model, we could simply base the amount of that fee on the development index of each country. That might contribute quite a bit to closing the digital divide by finally giving the South access to knowledge.

We denied them that access for a long time by overly restrictive regimes of "intellectual property" — like the TRIPS treaty, for which Microsoft was one of the key players. The debate at WIPO about these issues has been heating up this year; and your "Business Software Alliance" (BSA) has now filed for permanent accreditation.

We’ll be delighted to work with them to help the Southern countries establish a development agenda at WIPO to close the digital divide. If we had known this was so centrally on your mind, we would have gotten in touch much earlier. Let me know how we can make this happen.

About Georg Greve

Georg Greve is a technologist and entrepreneur. Background as a software developer and physicist. Head of product development and Chairman at Vereign AG. Founding president of the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE). Previously president and CEO at Kolab Systems AG, a Swiss Open Source ISV. In 2009 Georg was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit on Ribbon by the Federal Republic of Germany for his contributions to Open Source and Open Standards.
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