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F & F


Don Marti on Free Software, Patents and the Internet
posted by mpawlo on Friday September 20, @04:27AM
from the freedom-fighters dept.
News Don Marti is the editor of LinuxJournal and the mastermind behind the Burnallgifs campaign. He has strong views on free software, software patentability and the freedom of the Internet. Marti should personally be featured in any encylopedia under 'geektivism'. Greplaw has picked Don Martis brain.

# Who is Don Marti?

I'm the editor of Linux Journal and vice-president of the Silicon Valley Linux Users Group.

# Why should we burn all GIFs?

The Internet is a good thing because you don't need the permission of any one entity to publish. If you choose a patented format, you are throwing away the advantage of publishing on the Internet in the first place.

Many commonly used image editing programs come with a GIF license. However, GIF licenses on shrink-wrap software do not apply to GIFs that you may generate on the fly -- every site that does a dynamic map or chart in GIF format has to get a separate license.

# How do you burn something that is not tangible?

You print it out, and if you're holding your event in a place that prohibits public fires, you draw flames on it with a marker. It's not the burning that's important, it's freeing yourself from needing a license to publish.

# Greplaw still uses GIFs. What should we do instead?

Use PNG or JPEG images, depending on which gives you the best quality and image size. Almost all browsers in use today support both.

# Software patentability is entering Europe and European strong author's rights are entering the US. Why is this is a problem?

I'm not familiar with the strong author's rights issue.

Software patents are a big problem, though.

Best to start from first principles, since people argue the same issue from different points of view and never get anywhere. I'm going to be US-centric and look at our Constitution, which I think soundly expresses the point of view that patents are not a property right or a natural right.

Copyrights and patents appear in the Constitution in Article 1, Section 8, along with other miscellaneous economic powers of Congress. They're right next to "Post offices and post roads".

If patents are not a natural right or a property right, what are they? As you might guess by the post office and road connection, they're a government program to promote economic growth. Patents are intended to do two things: promote R&D investment by the private sector; and encourage the private sector to publish inventions. The Constitution makes this explicit in its stated reason for copyrights and patents: "to promote the progress of science and useful arts."

Patents reward these two economically desirable behaviors (doing research and publishing) with a temporary government-granted monopoly on a particular invention. Congress has full discretion on what kinds of content can get a patent and on how long a patent can last. (If patents were a "right" the Constitution would require them -- as it is, the Constitution only allows them.)

So, how should Congress decide which kinds of content get a patent and which don't? You have to strike a balance between, on one hand, the economic benefit of any R&D motivated by the prospect of a patent that would not have happened otherwise, and on the other hand, the transaction costs that are an inevitable result of the patent's existence.

You have to draw the line of what gets a patent and what doesn't somewhere. If you allow the patenting of rhyming words, sports plays, or musical notes, day-to-day life becomes an impossible mess of patent cross-licensing. And, as for these areas, there is no economic evidence that software patents help the economy or even encourage R&D. They may do the opposite -- see the Bessen and Maskin paper (PDF-format).

Software is a good thing because in software, a small investment can create and manage great complexity. When you impose the same transaction costs on software as on hardware, much useful software that could otherwise have been created does not exist. We are seeing this today in the field of video compression. The MPEG patent licensing mess is excluding everyone except for large, well-funded corporations from creating innovative new video-related software.

There may be increased R&D investment in a few areas, such as video compression, due to the prospect of a lucrative patent, but this economic gain is swamped by the loss of productive software later.

As a software patent opponent, I argue simply that patentability creep should be rolled back. The patent office should again exclude algorithms and business methods, as it already excludes ordinary mathematical theorems and their proofs. Forming a "GPL patent pool" might help to cut some of the transaction costs where GPL-covered software is concerned but cannot hope to ameliorate patents' harm to developers who use other licenses.

# Why should a lawyer be interested in Linux?

Why should a lawyer be interested in Cat 5 cable, or ATX power supplies, or USB keyboards? Linux is a generic, commodity item that does what you want it to do, as part of a larger system that you control.

# How will free software change society?

Free software won't so much change society as it will bring the computer business more in line with the rest of the economy. If you went shopping for any non-computer product, and got offered an End User License Agreement like those offered in the computer business, you'd laugh and walk out. Free software gives the customer the same rights of inspection and control that he or she has when buying non-computer products such as furniture (you can cut a hole for your cables in your desk) or cars (you can change your own oil.)

If you want to read a novel where software-like licensing is applied to a regular product with ludicrous results, read "Secrets of the Wholly Grill: A Novel about Cravings, Barbecue, and Software" by Lawrence G Townsend.

# Many countries consider public procurement policies where free software should be encouraged or even mandated. What is your take on a "Peru law"?

Governments have a responsibility to their citizens not to enter into unfair contracts. Most or all proprietary software licenses are unfair contracts, and subject the customer to lock-in and limit the customer's ability to fix problems.

Microsoft's lobbying against fair software purchase laws has been weak. They don't even put an End User License Agreement on their web site. If even the people who wrote it are ashamed of it, why should anyone else be willing to accept it?

# After September 11, 2001 you wrote an open letter to Michael Eisner, head of Disney, urging him not to go to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the SSSCA. Why did you do that?

I am on a mailing list based on a Linux server across the street from the World Trade Center. On September 11th, the traffic was about who's where, is everyone all right, which hospitals are open for blood donations, is a particular subway station open, what's going on. Stuff you can't get from TV. We can't let the media corporations seize control of hardware, lock out free software, and turn the net into a one-way medium like TV. Unless printing and postage get real cheap real fast, free speech in the USA needs the net.

# If major companies like IBM and Sun discontinue their support of free software, what will the effects be on the current movement?

Remember the question, "If the Linux startups fail, what will happen to free software?" There's enough customer pull that if customers can't get free software products and services from IBM and Sun, they'll get it someplace else.

# Declan McCullagh of News.com has stated: 'Trust me, a few--even a few thousand--peeved e-mail messages won't change vote totals that lopsided', hence geeks should focus on code, not on government. Do you agree?

Email spam was a "geek" issue until recently, and now, as it affects more and more people, the organizations that begain calling politicians' attention to it are involved in the mainstream political process. If you learn and understand the political process now, and begin making contacts, you will better be able to use the support you get as the anti-Net crackdown affects more and more people.

Declan is half-right in that focusing on code is good too. By all means, develop something that's questionable DMCA-wise but that everybody wants to use. You will motivate more people to be interested in DMCA reform.

# Finally - what is Pigdog and why?

Pigdog.org is the leading Internet news and content site. I am not an employee, just a satisfied reader.

Don Marti was interviewed by Mikael Pawlo.

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