free software community, by offering blanket licenses for 500 of its
patents to all free software developers. These are but a fraction of
IBM’s software patents, but still it was a substantial step. These
500 patents, at least, are no longer a danger to free software
developers.Since then, various other companies have been exploring how little
they can give to the free software community and still pose as
In January it was Sun’s turn. Sun’s announcement, if read quickly,
appeared to say Sun had authorized free software developers to
practice thousands of software patents. In fact, the announcement
didn’t really give anyone anything. Sun merely reminded us that
Solaris is free software and that Sun would not sue us for using that.
However, all other free software projects still face the threat of
patent lawsuits from Sun.
This week it was Nokia’s turn. Nokia announced it would not use its
patents to attack the developers of one specific free software project:
the kernel Linux, developed by Linus Torvalds and others, which is
most prominently used as the kernel of the GNU/Linux operating system.
Unlike Sun’s empty gesture, this isn’t nothing. It is good to know
that one important free software project will not be attacked by this
particular megacorporation. But the Free Software Directory lists
over 4,000 free software packages. Nokia’s announcement says nothing
about them, so they still face the potential threat of being attacked
by Nokia in the future. Nokia’s announcement isn’t nothing, but it is
next to nothing.
We can honestly thank IBM for agreeing not to sue us with 500 of its
patents, and we can thank Nokia too for agreeing not to attack one of
our community’s projects. But don’t be distracted from the real issue
at stake. Nokia most likely intends to use this announcement as a way
to put us in more danger.
Nokia, along with IBM and Microsoft, is lobbying hard for software
patents in Europe. Nokia will surely point to its own small gesture
as “proof” that software patents will not be devastating to free
In fact it proves just the opposite. If Nokia’s pledge not to attack
a single free software project amounts to anything, it shows that
Nokia’s continued threat to all other free software projects amounts
to real danger. And so does the threat from many other patent
holders, most of which have not pledged even the slightest support to
In effect, Nokia is lobbying the European Union to give Nokia and many
others a new kind of weapon to shoot at software authors and users
with–and telling the legislators, “Don’t worry, it’s safe to let
private armies carry these guns, because we promise that our
gunmen won’t shoot anyone in that building.”
The danger of software patents is not limited to free software.
Developers of proprietary software (and its users) can also be sued
for patent infringement. But the majority of software is private-use
software, developed for and used by one client. Its developers (and
its users) also face software patent lawsuits. This is why most
businesses in Europe are against software patents–a recent German
government study found 85% opposition. But the megacorporations are
spending lots of money to lull the European Parliament into ignoring
all opinion except theirs. They frequently offer false and irrational
arguments, hoping that the legislators won’t recognize the error and
that no one else will point it out to them.
To prevent the imposition of software patents in the EU we will need
50% of the members of the European Parliament to vote against them.
Convincing these members requires lots of phone calls. (A phone call
is much more effective than email.) Citizens of the European Union,
please telephone each one of the members of the European
Parliament in your region, and say you want them to support the JURI
committee and vote against software patents. If they say that the
directive won’t authorize software patents, educate them based on the
information you can find in ffii.org. That site offers advice on how
to communicate with MEPs, useful arguments and facts, and background
PS. If you can present me with a copy of a real threat letter that was
sent by a patent holder to a free software developer, that would
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.