June 29, 2005

Microsoft's New Monopoly

Author: Richard Stallman

European legislators who endorse software patents frequently claim
that those wouldn't affect free software (or "open source").
Microsoft's lawyers are determined to prove they are mistaken.
Leaked internal documents in 1998 said that Microsoft considered the
free software GNU/Linux operating system (referred to therein as
"Linux") as the principal competitor to Windows, and spoke of using
patents and secret file formats to hold us back.

Because Microsoft has so much market power, it can often impose new
standards at will. It need only patent some minor idea, design a file
format, programming language, or communication protocol based on it,
and then pressure users to adopt it. Then we in the free software
community will be forbidden to provide software that does what these
users want; they will be locked in to Microsoft, and we will be locked
out from serving them.

Previously Microsoft tried to get its patented scheme for
spam-blocking adopted as an Internet standard, so as to exclude free
software from handling email. The standards committee in charge
rejected the proposal, but Microsoft said it would try to convince
large ISPs to use the scheme anyway.

Now Microsoft is planning to try something similar for Word files.

Several years ago, Microsoft abandoned its documented format for
saving documents, and switched to a new format which was secret.
However, the developers of free software word processors such as
AbiWord and OpenOffice.org experimented assiduously for years to
figure out the format, and now those programs can read most Word
files. But Microsoft isn't licked yet.

The next version of Microsoft Word will use formats that involve a
technique that Microsoft claims to a patent on. Microsoft offers a
royalty-free patent license for certain limited purposes, but it is so
limited that it does not allow free software. You can see the license
here.

Free software is defined as software that respects four fundamental
freedoms: (0) freedom to run the software as you wish, (1) freedom to
study the source code and modify it to do what you wish, (2) freedom
to make and redistribute copies, and (3) freedom to publish modified
versions. Only programmers can directly exercise freedoms 1 and 3,
but all users can exercise freedoms 0 and 2, and all users benefit
from the modifications that programmers write and publish.

Distributing an application under Microsoft's patent license applies
license terms that prohibit most possible modifications of the
software. Lacking freedom 3, the freedom to publish modified
versions, it would not be free software. (I think it could not be
"open source" software either, since that definition is similar; but
it is not identical, and I cannot speak for the advocates of open
source.)

The Microsoft license also requires inclusion of a specific statement.
That requirement would not in itself prevent the program from being
free. It is normal for free software to carry license notices that
cannot be changed, and this statement could be included in one of
them. The statement is biased and confusing, since it uses the term
"intellectual property", but one is not required to endorse the
statement as true or even meaningful--only to include it. The
software developer could cancel its misleading effect with a
disclaimer like this: "The following misleading statement has been
imposed on us by Microsoft; please be advised that it is propaganda.
See http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/not-ipr.xhtml for more explanation."

However, the requirement to include a fixed piece of text is actually
quite cunning, because anyone who does so has explicitly accepted and
applied the restrictions of the Microsoft patent license. The
resulting program is clearly not free software.

Some free software licenses, such as the most popular GNU General
Public License, forbid publication of a modified version if it isn't
free software in the same way. (We call that the "liberty or death"
clause, since it ensures the program will remain free or die.) To
apply Microsoft's license to a program under the GNU GPL would violate
the program's license; it would be illegal. Many other free software
licenses permit non-free modified versions. It wouldn't be illegal to
modify such a program and publish the modified version under
Microsoft's patent license. But that modified version, with its
modified licnese, wouldn't be free software.

Microsoft's patent covering the new Word format is a US patent. It
doesn't restrict anyone in Europe; Europeans are free to make and use
software that can read this format. Europeans that develop or use
software currently enjoy an advantage over Americans: the Americans
can be sued for patent infringement for their software activities in
the US, but the Europeans cannot be sued for their activities in
Europe. Europeans can already get US software patents and sue
Americans, but Americans cannot get European software patents if
Europe doesn't allow them.

All that will change if the European Parliament authorizes software
patents. Microsoft will be one of thousands of foreign software
patent holders that will bring their patents over to Europe to sue the
software developers and computer users there. Of the 50,000-odd
putatively invalid software patents issued by the European Patent
Office, around 80% do not belong to Europeans. The European
Parliament should vote to keep these patents invalid, and keep
Europeans safe.

Copyright 2005 Richard Stallman
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted
worldwide without royalty in any medium provided this notice is preserved.

Category:

  • Free Software
Click Here!