Saturday, 1 December, 2007

Richard Stallman's Speech on Intellectual Property and Software Patents

Here are some extracts of an interesting speech by Richard Stallman (RMS) on Intellectual Property and software patents etc. An interesting read...

Prof. Jyothi John, Head of Computer Engineering Department introduces Stallman:

It's my privilege and duty to welcome the most distinguished guest ever we had in this college.

Mr. Richard Mathew Stallman launched the development of the GNU operating system in 1984, the goal being to create a completely free Unix-like operating system. The organisation that was founded in 1985 to further this purpose is the Free Software Foundation.

Stallman is a visionary of computing in our times, and is the genius behind programs such as emacs, gcc, the GNU debugger and more. Most importantly, he's the author of the GNU general public licence, the licence under which more than half of all free software is distributed and developed. The combination of GNU with Linux, the kernel, called the GNU/Linux operating system, now has an estimated twenty million users worldwide.

Stallman's concept of free software talks about freedom, rather than about price. His ideas g a long way into ensuring development of software for the welfare of society, collectively developed by programmers who do not "lock up" their work, but rather release it for others to study, modify and redistribute.

Stallman received the Grace Hopper award from the Association for Computing Machinery for 1991, in 1990 he was awarded MacArthur Foundation Fellowship - other recipients of this prestigious award include Noam Chomsky and Tim Berners-Lee. In 1996, an honorary doctorate of Technology from the Royal Institute, Sweden was awarded to him. In 1998, he received the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Pioneer award, along with Linus Torvalds. In 1999 he received the Yuri Rubinski Memorial award.

Today, Stallman will be talking about the danger of software patents. In fact this is one of the most important aspect of the freedom of programming because the aspect of software patents may make all programmers potential lawbreakers because unknowingly they may be violating some of the patents registered by some other company.

Stallman's speech:

After that introduction, I am sure many of you want to know about Free Software. But unfortunately that's not what I am supposed to speak about. In fact, this topic, software patents, is not very closely related to the issue of Free Software. Software patents are a danger that affect all programmers and all computer users. I found out about them of course in working on Free Software because they are a danger to my project as well as to every other software project in the world.

There is a very unfortunate phrase that you may have heard. It is the phrase "intellectual property". Now, there are two things wrong with this phrase. One - it prejudges the most important policy question about how to treat some kind of ideas or practices or work. So, whatever it assumes that they are going to be treated as some kind of property. Now, this is a public policy decision and you should be able to consider various alternatives to choose the best one. Which means you shouldn't name the whole field, name the question with with a term that prejudges what kind of answer you use.

But second and and even more fundamental, that term is actually a catalogue for totally different areas of law including copyrights, patents, trademarks, trade secrets and various other things as well. Now these areas of a law in fact have almost nothing in common. What the laws say is totally different from one to the next. Their origins are completely independent and the public policy issues that they raise are completely different. So the only intelligent way to think about them is to pick one of them and think about it; think about them separately.

So the intelligent way to talk about them is never to generalise about them but to talk about a specific one, you know, talk about copyrights or talk about patents or talk about trademarks, but never lump them all together as intellectual property because that is a recipe for simplistic conclusions. It is almost impossible to think intelligently about "intellectual property" and so I refuse to do that. I just tell people why the term is a mistake and then if you ask me for my opinion on copyrights or my opinion on patents it will take me an hour to tell you it. But they are two different opinions and my opinion on trademarks is something completely different as well.

So the most important thing for you to start with is never mix copyrights and patents as topics. They have nothing to do for each other. Let me tell you some of the basic differences between copyrights and patents: a copyright deals with a particular work, usually a written work and it has to do with the details of that work. Ideas are completely excluded from it. Patents, by contrast - well, patent covers an idea. It's that simple and any idea that you can describe - that's what a patent might restrict you from doing.

Now, copyrights have to do with copying; if you wrote something that was word for word the same as some famous novel and you could prove that you did this while you were locked up in a room and you have never seen that novel, this would not be copyright violation because it's not copying. But a patent is an absolute monopoly on using a particular idea. Even if you could show that you thought of it on your own that would be considered totally irrelevant. It doesn't help you.

Now, copyrights exist automatically. Whenever anything is written, it is copyrighted. Patents are issued through an expensive application process. There is an expensive fee and even more expense in paying lawyers, which of course tends to be good for big companies and the patent office says that it only issues patents for things that are unobvious. However, practically speaking, in many patent offices the criterion is unobvious to somebody with an IQ of fifty. And they have all sorts of excuses to ignore the fact that whenever any programmer looks at it his first statement is, "this is absurd, it's obvious." They say, "well, this is hindsight". So they have an excuse to completely ignore the judgement of everybody who really is a programmer.

Now, copyrights last an extremely long time. In the US today it's possible for copyrights to last for a 150 years, which is absurd. Patents don't last that long; they merely last for a long time - 20 years which in the field of software, as you can imagine is a long time. Now there are many other differences as well. In fact every detail is different. So the worst thing you should ever do is to learn something about copyrights and suppose that the same is true of patents. No, more likely it is not true of patents. If it's true of copyrights, it's not true of patents. That would be a better guideline if you had to guess.


Well, since we in the GNU project needed a data compression program and since we could not use compress we began looking for some other compression program. We found that somebody came forward and said, "I have been working on this algorithm for a year and now I have decided I am going to contribute it to you. Here is the code". We were a week away from releasing this program when I just happened to see a copy of the New York Times , which doesn't happen very often, and it just happened to have the weekly patents column and I noted it and so I read it. It said that somebody had got a patent for inventing a new method, a better method of data compression.

Well, that was not in fact true. When I saw this I thought we'd better get copy of this patent and see if it's a problem and it turned out to cover exactly the same algorithm that we were about to release. So this program was killed one week before it was released. And in fact that person, that patent holder had not invented a better method because in fact it wasn't new, but that doesn't matter. He had a monopoly.

So eventually we found another compression algorithm which is used in the program that's known as GISA. But this illustrates the danger that you face: even if you had unlimited resources, you couldn't find out about all the patents that might endanger your project.


When the United States entered the World War I, nobody in the US could make a modern airplane. And the reason was that modern airplanes use several different techniques that were patented by different companies and the owners hated each other. So nobody could get a license to use all these patents. Well, the US Government decided that this was an unacceptable state of affairs and essentially, paid those patent holders a lump sum and said we have nationalised these patents and now everybody go make airplanes for us. But the amount to which this happens, the frequency and the seriousness of it varies according to how many different ideas go in one product. It varies according to how many points of patent vulnerability there are in one product. And in that question, software is at the extreme.


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