Thursday, July 1, 2010

{Interoperability} FOSS-related opportunities and priorities

This posting is the fourth (and final one) in a four-part series on a legislative initiative for interoperability currently being evaluated by the EU. Click here for the first part of the series (a brief overview of what this is all about) or here for the previous part, which discusses procedures.

Like I wrote in the first part of this series of postings, I regard the initiative to impose interoperability requirements on significant market players as a first-rate opportunity for free software and open source.

Beneficial with or without software patents

There's no question that the number one item on the political wishlists of most community members is -- and will continue to be -- the abolition of software patents. I'm also aware that many in the community would prefer for interoperability-related patents to be available on a royalty-free basis. The last quote above from Mrs. Kroes's speech indicates "pricing constraints" as a likely option, which makes it pretty clear that patent holders won't be required to grant licenses on a royalty-free basis.

But even if some of us fear the initiative might not go far enough, we should at least support the parts we like and get as much mileage out of it as possible.

The FOSS community should embrace and support this interoperability initiative. There really is the chance to make some important headway. Everyone who opposes software patents (and patent royalties) altogether can continue to advocate that position. Even if we achieved the abolition of software patents one day against the odds, this interoperability initiative would still have value because it will very likely deal with more than just patents. For an example, undocumented interfaces are a problem with or without patents, but the future interoperability law could solve it.

Looking at Mrs. Kroes's track record, I'm sure she will make the most open-source-friendly proposal she can under the legal parameters and political circumstances that exist. Even if she may prefer royalty-free interoperability, it's not only politically but also legally impossible for a government to expropriate right holders without adequate compensation.

Politics is the art of the possible

The potential benefits of a European IT interoperability law are huge. Let's try to achieve as much as feasible. Politics is the art of the possible, and progress has to be made one step at a time. I don't see any other legislative idea in Europe (and this one would certainly have repercussions around the globe) that offers such an attractive combination of being potentially helpful and politically achievable in the near to mid term.

I believe SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) could be important allies to make this happen. We should work with them to give Mrs. Kroes the input and political support that will be needed to overcome whatever resistance some may try to mount (including some who demanded interoperability in the past, when other companies' intellectual property was concerned, but don't want to provide it with their own products and will therefore try to get the bill diluted if not derailed).

We can still be against software patents in general and explore ever more ways to achieve that goal. But that shouldn't preclude us from seizing what looks like a wonderful opportunity on the interoperability front.

If you are also excited about this initiative, please stay in touch by bookmarking this blog, emailing me via the contact form, or following me on Twitter @FOSSpatents.