On Monday 17 March 2015, I participated in a panel discussion organised by the European Patent Office at the Cebit in Hannover. The title of the discussion was “Patents, Standards, and Open Source -- a changing landscape”. I prepared to discuss software patents, but something unexpected happened in the panel discussion.
I was invited by Grant Philpott (Principal Director of ICT area in the European Patent Office) to participate in the panel discussion. Beside him as a moderated there were: the following participants: Brian Hinman (Senior Vice President and Chief IP Officer, Royal Philips), Koen Lievens (Director DG1, European Patent Office), and myself.
To prepare I first read the EPO's position on software patents again, and then prepared for the discussion together with our current interns Marius Jammes, Miks Upenieks, and Nicola Feltrin. So they had to read some articles -- including one of my favourites “The Most Important Software Innovations” by David Wheeler -- and we discussed the main arguments in favour and against software patents again. That was a good practice for them, as well as for me. After this we were well prepared to discuss details about software patents.
Before the event, Brian Hinman and myself were asked to prepare a short input statement about the “main IP needs of the ICT sector in the future, how you see these being ideally met, and what will need to change in order to get to that 'ideal' situation.” (My notes for this statement are below.) This was the start of the panel discussion.
I was astonished what happened when the audience was included in the discussion: almost all their questions were about Free Software, and almost none about patents. Instead of expected comments like “but how do we give incentives to inventors” or “but we have to secure investments”, people were interested in Free Software specifics. From the 45 minutes on the panel we at least spoke 25 minutes exclusively about Free Software business models, compliance issues, copyright management, and why Free Software is important for our society and the economy. Afterwards I spent over an hour to answer several questions from the audience which we could not cover during the disucssion.
So this discussion took a completely unexpected turn for me. But in this case I was very happy about that.
My introduction statement
Today Free Software runs on the majority of computers around the world: from supercomputers and other servers, to robots or space shuttles, to computers we carry around every day in like phones or tablets, to very small computers we often do not recognise as such.
How did we achieve it, that nowadays the most important operating system is Free Software, every company uses Free Software, and that it is almost impossible to develop other software without using Free Software yourself?
We achieved that because Free Software empowers people rather than restricting them. Based on copyright we use licenses which grant everybody the rights to use, study, share and improve software for any purpose.
- The right to use it for any purpose, garantees that everybody can participate in using and developing software. So there is no discrimination on who can use the technology or for what you can use it.
- Every Free Software license grants you the right to study how it works: In a world which is as complex as ours we cannot afford to keep things secret if we want to solve problems. Source code plus documentation is the best way to share the knowledge how IT devices work. Publishing source code is also the best way to enable interoperability and therefore competition.
- To adopt software to your own needs it is crucial that you are allowed to improve it. Technology should do what you want to do with it, not what others thought it should do. So you are allowed to modify all parts of the software, use only parts of it, experiment with it, and combine programs to create new products.
- Furthermore you have the right to share knowledge and workload with others. We have many problems in the world, which can be solved with software. But we have few people who can actually solve them in a good way. Let us enable them to concentrate on fixing new problems, instead of fixing one which was already solved. So Free Software always allows you to share the software -- modified or not -- with others.
We guarantee everybody those rights through copyright.
- Legal issues: too many legal issues around technology. Let people be creative to fix other people's problems, instead of focusing on problems resulting e.g. out of copyright and patents.
- Licenses: most FS licenses are much easier to understand than proprietary software licenses. Solution: but still we can make them easier to understand and work with, and have fewer licenses.
- Patents: problematic to have additional monopolies on principles instead of implementations. Burden to do research what other people already did in a field, the need to negotiate with them, dealing with lawsuits. So stronger clarification that patents on software are not allowed. In case it is not clear if it is software or hardware, patents should not be granted.
- Secrecy: not publishing the source code and thereby preventing others in society to understand how products work or to make interoperable products. This restriction also continues after the copyright period. Solution: at least publicly financed software (including research) needs to be published under Free Software licenses. This way the results can be integrated in all kind of products. Maybe requirement to depose source code.
- Restricting hardware platforms: someone else controls what you can install on your computers. Solution: clear right that you are allowed to change software on your computers, and as a company also sell those afterwards.