Monday, June 28, 2010

IBM's Bilski brief spits in the face of the free software and open source movements

Later today, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) will most probably publish its long-awaited opinion in re Bilski, a decision that appears to relate to a business method patent but could also become the first landmark SCOTUS ruling on software patents in a long time.

A fellow activist recently pointed me to an outrageous document: In an effort to dissuade the SCOTUS from imposing restrictions on software patentability, IBM tells the court the blatant lie that software patents have made open source popular.

Even worse, IBM describes software patents as a liberating factor, making mockery of the whole software freedom movement founded and spearheaded by Richard Stallman. RMS has always opposed software patents. He travels the world to fight them (a speech he gave at a demonstration in Munich last year is on YouTube: part 1, part 2). But IBM shamelessly claims that it took software patents to liberate software developers and make Stallman's idea fly.

In a footnote on page 25 of its amicus curiae brief (submission to the court) in the Bilski case, IBM makes the following claim that is not only the exact opposite of the truth but also shows the ruthless and cynical enemy of open source that IBM is in the patent context:
"Patent protection has promoted the free sharing of source code on a patentee’s terms---which has fueled the explosive growth of open source software development."
I read this again and again, and I find it nothing short of appalling. This is absolutely in contradiction to the GPL, the Apache Software License and the spirit and the letter of other FOSS licenses.

The worst lie ever in the software patent debate

The absurd assertion that patents -- the most fundamental threat to software freedom -- promote "the free sharing of source code" and therefore open-source development is the most preposterous argument in favor of software patents that I've ever heard. And I've heard many, including many stupid ones, in countless debates in which I participated over the years. But this one is in a class of its own, in a negative sense.

Let me speak from my experience as a participant in so many public debates on software patents as well as private conversations with politicians and their advisers.

Those who advocate software patents will say a lot of things that are factually wrong just to get their way. During the legislative process concerning the EU software patent directive, the strategy of the pro-patent camp was to flatly deny that the law was about software patents. They claimed they just needed the law to make computer-controlled devices such as automatic transmission systems or new generations of washing machines work. The NoSoftwarePatents campaign, which I founded and managed until 2005, called this "the mother of all lies."

Another lie was to claim that the proposal would have restricted the European Patent Office in its practice of granting software patents. OpenForum Europe, a lobby organization whose biggest and most influential member is IBM, was among those spreading that message, falsely claiming to represent the open source community.

Many debates never got to the point of whether or not software should be patentable because it took so long to dismantle those lies about the legal meaning of the proposal that there usually wasn't any time left for the fundamental question of what's best to incentivize innovation.

The lesser evil: denying negative impact

When we had the chance to discuss the heart of the issue, we also saw many claims that FOSS could prosper under a software patent regime. Those claims were meant to alleviate concerns of FOSS-friendly politicians, almost all of whom opposed software patents. As part of that political strategy, IBM made its original "open source patent pledge" in January 2005. They wanted to lull politicians as well as the FOSS community into a false sense of security. This was in their interest with a view to the European process, so the timing wasn't a coincidence. Of course, their interests concerning the open source community go beyond Europe.

This ZDNet article, published on the day of the announcement of the pledge, quotes me as calling IBM's 500-patent pledge an act of hypocrisy because they were actively lobbying for software patents in Europe. I was fighting their lawyers and lobbyists all the time, and I told the ZDNet reporter who then called up politicians to double-check.

Mark MacGann, then the chief executive and lobbyist of a big IT industry association (with IBM among its members), is quoted in that article with his spin, calling IBM's pledge "a strong example of the compatibility of computer-implemented invention (CII) patents with the OSS development model." I haven't talked to him in several years, but next time I see him, I'll ask him what he thinks of IBM's betrayal of the pledge.

Still, it's the lesser evil if someone just denies that there's a negative impact and grossly overstates the benefit of pledges. What IBM does in its Bilski brief is much worse: IBM attributes the rise of free and open source software to the liberating effect of software patents, which is not just wrong but turns the facts upside down.

Right or wrong, it serves their purposes. I can only hope that the judges figured it out.

IBM probably tells the same story around the globe

IBM recently also lobbied for software patents in New Zealand, where the abolition of software patents was a political possibility but it seems that a trend reversal has occurred, with IBM and Microsoft advocating software patents. I don't know what exactly they said. New Zealand is antipodal to where I live, and I don't have any contacts there. Presumably, IBM will have made pretty much the same points as in its Bilski brief.

I don't deny companies their right to push for software patents, just like I have the right to oppose them. That's democracy, but there's a right way and a wrong way to make the case. Mockery of freedom is simply unacceptable.

I don't know how IBM discusses software freedom internally. I guess it's similar to the attitude of CNN reporter Rick Sanchez:
"What, what the hell does that mean, freedom? The biggest tent is freedom? Freedom?! I mean you gotta do better than that."
Whatever freedom may mean, Messrs. Sanchez and Sutor, software patents aren't part of it.

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