September 19, 2003

Lobbying for Linux

- by Tom Chance -
It's not every day that you find yourself talking to your Member of the European Parliament (MEP) about Free
Software; a day becomes even more unusual when an MEP's assistant starts to
talk to you about happy penguins and GNU/Linux. But with a vote on software
patents due in a matter of days, such strange circumstances go to the back of
your mind as you fight for the right to develop software free of patents.

A lot of coverage has been devoted to the software patents fracas, both in
the USA and in the EU, and rightly so, but little has been written about the lobbying
process itself and how individuals can and should approach it. This article
attempts to redress the balance.

First, a little about my circumstances. I am not a full-time experienced
software developer, nor a professional lobbyist au fait with every aspect of
the EU's legislative process. I am a student who has studied the EU a little,
and who codes for the community and for money in his spare time. Until I
traveled to Brussels, I had not even written a letter to my MEP on the issue
of software patents (though I confess I have experience in lobbying MPs in
the UK). In other words, anybody with a vague understanding of the issue, and
with a few days to spare, can lobby for Free Software.

Getting there was a matter of getting a plane to Brussels, getting to the
European Parliament, calling up a hacker who was already inside the
building, and waiting for a friendly MEP's assistant to help us in. Once
inside the building, we listened in on some briefings, looked through some
more paperwork, and then set off to meet an MEP.

Our first MEP was Robert
, a member of the UK Conservative Party, whose European coalition
supports the legislation as it stands (at the time of writing). Sturdy, like
many MEPs, wasn't in the building on the day, so we made an appointment with
his assistant. We met over a cup of coffee, and began by trying to convince
her that we had travelled to Brussels as individuals, and wanted to express
our concerns, not those of an organisation we had been sent over by.
Though the FFII had financed our trip, and
we agreed with their views, MEPs are regularly lobbied by paid professionals,
and are less likely to take heed of your personal concerns if they think
you're just such a lobbyist.

Once convinced, I launched into my semi-prepared speech about why software
patents were bad for me, focusing on personal aspects of the issue, and on
aspects that touched Sturdy's own constituency (Cambridgeshire, a hub of the
software industry in the UK). As we thrashed out arguments, and deployed ever
more convoluted analogies, we gradually got a feel for the kinds of arguments
that the assistant responded to the most and those that didn't impress her
at all.

Frustratingly, accusations that the proposed legislation would lead to the
havoc experienced in the US, with the infamous one-click patents, were of
little use. Though it is often said that the proposed legislation brings the
EU in line with US legislation, it is in fact the intention of the EU to
avoid the mess that US legislation has created by clarifying the matter.
However, whilst they claim to want to avoid patents on such "inventions" as
one-click shopping, the proposed legislation in fact legalises many such
patents. Making this point to MEPs became our first priority, as many didn't
seem to realise that the legislation was leading to exactly the kind of
future its proponents claimed they wanted to avoid.

Once this point was established, we strove to make Sturdy's assistant
understand why this was the case. As is widely
, there is a difference between ideas based upon natural
science that are manifested in physical inventions (e.g. a car, a pulley
system) and ideas based upon theoretical sciences that are manifested in
terms of information (e.g. music, software). Currently, EU legislation on
patents precludes ideas based upon theoretical sciences,
preferring protection by copyright, but software is a special case, because
it can be part of an invention in the main based upon the physical sciences.
For example, one might invent a new robot that assembles equipment; that
robot will require software to work, and current law makes it unclear as to
whether or not the invention as a whole can be patented. The new EU law
proposes, but fails, to allow such an invention to be patented whilst
disallowing software itself to be patented.

Trying to explain such a complicated, technical distinction to an MEP's
assistant who specialises in agriculture was an uphill struggle. What made it
easier was that the assistant was friendly and fun to talk with, and that she
gave us 45 minutes of her time. This came as quite a surprise, given
that we had arrived unannounced to talk about an issue that she only had a
short time to prepare herself for.

Reactions to this point varied; Sturdy's assistant broadly agreed with us,
but she thought that the legislation could avoid the problem
by defining a category of un-patentable inventions that would include pure
software. Our approach was to make this distinction in the core of the
legislation to avoid confusion, but it seems that MEPs are more comfortable
cleaning the legislation's uncertanties up afterwards in footnotes.

The second MEP's assistant we spoke to, the assistant to Avril
, had been so inundated by correspondance on the subject that she
had become completely confused. Avril Doyle is the representative for her
national party on software patents, and so was a target of a lot of Irish
letter writers; it seemed that so many divergent arguments had been made that
her office was at a loss. What was sorely lacking in letters they had
received was proposed amendments and concrete alternatives, which
immediately make clear what one is asking for. We passed on some amendments
tabled by the UEN group, and went on our way.

The final point we drove home was that software patents are damaging.
This was the hardest of all the arguments to make, because it depends upon an
understanding of how software development differs from the development of
cars, for example. After a few failed attempts at explaining how one bases a
Web site upon Apache, PHP, HTTP, and various other potentially patentable
technologies, we resorted to more obscure analogies. Though they were
initially confusing, and poorly thought out, these worked quite well, as they
got the assistants to think with us about what we were trying to say; it
helped that they were quick to understand our strange abstractions.

The impact of our argument was almost impossible to judge, since it didn't
affect a particular passage of the proposed legislation, and so we could only
hope that it informed the MEPs' decisions.

With each MEP, and each assistant, we developed a more coherent, streamlined
approach. The first meeting was an amusing chat that took 45 minutes;
by the last MEP, we were able to make our points within about 20.
Reactions from MEPs and assistants were more consistent, however. Few really
understood the issue of software patents; some openly admitted that they were
confused by the whole issue, and were grateful that we had clarified it for
them. None understood the nature of software development nor the views of
software developers themselves. Nonetheless, it was still possible to
communicate both our concerns and potential solutions, even if it was
impossible to really know the impact of our words.

What really made our day, and blew away all our expectations, occurred when we
mentioned the word "Linux" to Sturdy's assistant; "ah, happy Penguins!" she
said, and our faces lit up. Admittedly, she knew about Free Software a little
because she had recently graduated from Cambridge University and had friends
who studied Computer Science, but this was interesting nonetheless. Knowledge
tends to snowball, and so the ideas behind Free Software are already
spreading, even if this process is still in its early stages.

As with a lot of legislation, MEPs have to rely on the work of their
coalition's nominated specialists, and the views of concerned citizens, which
leaves us at the mercy of these specialists, and ourselves. If every software
developer in Europe were to write to, phone or visit their MEP, we may not
convince every MEP of our views, but we might just win the vote. The linked
up campaign, deploying online demonstrations, real demonstrations, letter
writing and face-to-face lobbying has been hugely successful so far, but more
work remains to be done before the vote. If you'd like to do more to protect
the EU from software patents, there is plenty of work to
be done.

Copyright by Tom Chance, 2003

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