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Don Marti on Free Software, Patents and the Internet
posted by mpawlo
on Friday September 20, @04:27AM
from the freedom-fighters dept.
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
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
# 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
# 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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