WIPO PCDA2: Free Software: Feedback to our work, and perspectives

Besides the highly controversial plenary discussion, which seems to have led to a stalemate at the current point in time, there were some very interesting points at this PCDA meeting in relation to the work FSFE has been doing at WIPO and elsewhere. Not only is Free Software much more prominent in WIPO discussions than it has ever been before, some groups apparently feel the need to work against it now.

ICC Paper

One group that has taken up this job was the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), which distributed a policy paper on “Open Source”, which was curiously called “Logiciels Open Source” in the French translation. The paper started with an almost correct factual description of Free Software, and even has one occurence of GNU/Linux.

There are however some subtle imprecisions, which are serving to hook their position into. Naturally, they call Free Software “Open Source” consistently, and point out that there is a confusion between a group of licenses, and a development model, both of which are occasionally referred to under this label. From this mistaken identity between Free Software and a software development model, the paper then touches upon Open Standards, which are defined as “publicly available technical specifications.”

Through this definition, the paper differentiates between “Open Source Standards” and “Open Standards” and emphasises that a preference for Open Standards does not mean preference of one software development or licensing model over another.

The main point of the paper was however to explain to the governmental representatives that it was not adequate to prefer Free Software for public procurement. This is partially based on the common misinformation strategy to distinguish between “commercial” and “Open Source” software to insinuate that by preferring Free Software, governments were discriminating against certain companies, or working to destroy the ICT industry.

As far as funding for research is concerned, the paper makes a strong point to please release it under non-Copyleft licenses so it can then be propertised into proprietary software.

In short: The paper rather slyly presents the current Microsoft position, which is equivalent to their second line of defense, based on claims of “technological neutrality”, ignoring that political choices for Free Software are not primarily technological choices.

Federalist Society

A much more aggressive approach was taken by the Federalist Society, a conservative US group, which distributed a booklet titled “Are Intellectual Property Rights Human Rights?”. This paper seems to serve a dual purpose: To spread misinformation and to create fear of NGOs for the purpose of fundraising in conservative US industries who, if they are to believe this paper, will think that Hannibal is standing before the gates of Rome.

The paper consistently calls everyone who is not unthinkingly advocating more, stronger and more harshly enforced monopolies an “IP skeptic” who is part of the “New International IP Agenda.” The NGO’s behind this agenda are described as well-funded, well-organized, and smart. Examples of NGOs in this paper include the Free Software Foundation Europe, among others. While the well-funded is probably far more adequate for the also mentioned CPTech, and I am not sure whether FSFE can be described as part of an “IP Agenda”, I guess this is a sort of compliment.

But it gets better. The paper describes much of the work of the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) and its allies from the viewpoint of a conservative US organisation, which is extremely interesting. Here are some examples:

The Software Patent Debate in the European Union

This part is very interesting for various reasons. Firstly, it introduces the matter in the following way:

     In early 2002, the European Commission proposed a directive to harmonize laws among EU member states regarding the patentability of computer-implemented inventions. Among other things, the original draft of the directive would have permitted broader patentability of software than is currently available under the laws of EU member nations. 

Why is this interesting? Because it says two things: Europe currently HAS software patents, and the directive would have BROADENED the patentability of software. While this is what we’ve always said, it is nice to hear our adversaries confirm that we indeed understood the situation correctly — contrary to what some politicians still claim, who insist on “computer implemented inventions.”

The paper goes on:

     Opposition to the directive is led by the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure ("FFII"), the Free Software Foundation Europe ("FSFE"), and the Greens/ European Free Alliance in the European Parliament. 

So they apparently know who we are. Interesting.The description that follows is a summary of some of the arguments that we’ve been using, described from their perspective, of course, to make them seem weak. It is somewhat involuntarily funny to see them portray it as unfair that the EU parliament debate portrayed the US patent system as dysfunctional, knowing that even large US corporations like IBM and Microsoft are increasingly voicing concerns about its dysfunctionality.

The paper describes the EU parliament decision of 24 September 2003 as a day of victory for FFII, FSFE, and the EuroLinux Alliance, to then enter into an interesting description of what happened in the Council in May 2004:

     Rather than accepting the Parliament's amended language, the Council voted to reject the Parliament's anti- software patent position in May 2004. The Council largely stripped the directive of the Parliament's amendments and re-opened the door to software patents. 

Remember: This is a conservative US organisation that is in favor of software patentability, and has nothing to win by confirming our description of what happened in May 2004. This really speaks for itself.

After some more description of the historic events, this section of the paper then closes with the sentence “Their will be felt for years to come.” This sounds like good news.

World Summit on the Information Society

Another major item in the paper is the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), during which the Free Software Foundation Europe has been extremely active, not the last through my co-coordinating the international working group on Patents, Copyrights and Trademarks (PCT) which also dealt with Free Software and Open Standards issues. So I do indeed feel a little complimented when I read their evaluation of our impact on the WSIS:

     Although the WSIS Principles do not explicitly endorse a particular software model, they do promote increasing awareness among all stakeholders of the possibilities offered by different software models, including proprietary, open- source and free software, in order to increase competition, access by users, diversity of choice, and to enable all users to develop solutions that best meet their requirements. [...] In fact, those advocates have been instrumental in shaping the criteria for considering the various software models to include all areas in which open software advocates believe they have an inherent advantage over proprietary software [...] it is clear that they are shaping the discussion and having a considerable impact. 

It is good to hear we did not waste our time during the WSIS. Indeed, the conclusion says:

     [...], its proponents have put their issues on the agenda of international organizations including WIPO, the WTO, and the U.N. 

So we’re definitely having an impact, and everyone who has supported our work over the years should feel good about this.

But the paper also highlighted one particular weakness that has been at the core of many political attacks against Free Software in the past years. Here is what they say about “Open Source”:

     Although the term open source means somewhat different things to different people, a generally accepted semi-official definition is maintained by the Open Source Initiative. 

This sums up the problem of the “Open Source” terminology rather well, and in its result I have indeed experienced a political weakening of Free Software in all the major political arenas I’ve been working in over the years.

The way forward

To counteract that problem, I took half a day to write a small “Free Software Essentials Reference” paper, which is online in HTML and PDF format.

The times where Free Software just somehow needed to increase the amount of people that were talking about it, regardless of the consequences, are long gone, if they ever existed. Today it is no longer a question that Free Software is serious, it is also no longer a question that it is commercial. At the same time, the success of Free Software is increasingly dependent on our political strength, and ability to protect ourselves from the misinformation spread by others.

Naturally the software itself will always play a central role, but for that it is irrelevant how we refer to it. So my call to everyone who cares about Free Software (even if you currently call it Open Source, FOSS or FLOSS) is simple: Even if you think Richard Stallman is a unfriendly individual, ultimately Free Software is much bigger than him — and much bigger than any of us. So help us keep it strong on the political field by avoiding to play into the hands of those who wish to see us weakened.

An easy way to do that is to consciously use the term Free Software.

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.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.