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FSFE Newsletter - December 2010
This edition covers the current developments in Open Standards policy, some basic information about software patents, an update from FSCONS about distributed computing, and how you can support us in the end of the year.
This month was the first time in FSFE's history that we had a booth at three conferences at the same date: the Brandenburger Linux Infotag (BLIT) in Potsdam/Germany, the Free Society Conference and Nordic Summit (FSCONS in Göteburg/Sweden, and T-DOSE Eindhoven/The Netherlands. Our PDFreaders campaign is quite successful: 31 public administrations already removed advertisements for non-free PDF readers from their websites, 8 of them added links to pdfreaders.org. FSFE's sysadmins updated the Fellowship blog software, and we gave several presentations to politicians, parties, the public administration, and the Berlin Debating Union. This month Fellowship interview is with Brian about free documentation, emacs org mode, and his understanding of software as a tool. And finally we would like to congratulate Bjarni Rúnar Einarsson, Free Software developer and community builder from Iceland, who has received the Nordic Free Software Award.
Open Standards: India - Europe 1:0
This month India's government announced its Open Standards policy, which is a huge success for the Free Software movement. The advantages for Free Software in India were definitely worth the three-year struggle with the proprietary software companies. When reading the government's papers you will recognise several points that were included in our Open Standards definition, especially the ones already covered in the October edition of the newsletter: that patents on standards should be available on a royalty-free basis. This policy will foster innovation in India's IT market, it will lead to smaller costs for the public administration, and will enable programmers to be more innovative.
The European Commission is also setting out to reform Europe's standardisation system. Standardisation in Europe is currently dominated by a small number of organisations, mainly big companies. At the same time, much innovation is done by small and medium-sized companies. Although numerous, they do not really have a voice in standardisation. When having the opportunity to participate they often struggle because of a lack of time, money or expertise. So while the Indian document improved between revisions, the European Interoperability Framework (EIF) has only got worse . But with your ongoing support we can continue to explain the importance of Open Standards to the European Commission and the member states, so they can provide us the same advantages as the Indian government. This month by participating at an joint event from the European Commission and the European Patent Office.
Software patents: Not another monopoly on software
Another topic we highlighted at the meeting from the European Commission and in a radio interview (in German) were software patents.
To begin with, a patent is a monopoly on an idea, whereas copyright is a monopoly on a concrete implementation. While Bach's II symphony is covered by copyright, a patent would give a monopoly on the idea to combine bowed and wind instruments. Software falls under the copyright. This makes sense, with software you have little research costs, but you have to spend a lot of time implementing the ideas to make sure there are no security problems, and you can easily maintain and adapt it in future. The idea to combine bowed and wind instruments is not a big challenge, the challenge is how to combine them so it still sounds good in the end.
More and more people understand that software patents are a problem for everybody , no matter if big or small companies, individual software developers, users, non-free or Free Software.
- The companies have to spent more money for their legal department, to register patents, to negotiate patent crosslicensing, and to defend themselves against patent claims. While for some time software patents are a nice tool for big companies to prevent newcomers to compete with them, they also have to face companies who only sue others on software patents, and never do any software development by themselves. Against them, any software company can only loose.
- For software developers software patents mean legal uncertainty: whenever you start programming you might violate law. You will never be able to find out if you violate a patent. Even if you read a software patent you might not realise it covers what you are currently implementing. With patents, we have to pay money to register them. On the other hand with copyright, everybody of us even those who just program as a hobby can write a program, and afterwards this falls under copyright without any additional costs. In fact, software patents can dispossess us as they can prevent from using the rights we get from copyright, e.g. to distribute the program to others.
- Users would have to pay for all those costs. Some people estimate that the patent costs for smartphones are about 20% of the actual price payed by the customer.
We will continue to get rid of that problem. In the US our sister organisation is working to build awareness to the harm caused by software patents and in New Zealand the government understood the problem and recommended in April to include computer programs amongst inventions that may not be patented. In Europe the legislation has decided that software is not patentable. But laws are always interpreted by people, and in this case interpretations of the law differ. So the European Patents Office (EPO) grants software patents by declaring them as "computer implemented inventions". We will continue to work with our sister organisations , our associated organisation FFII , and others to inform people about the dangers of software patents. We will explain the legislative that they have to make the laws more precise so that the patent offices have to act as intended.
Distributed computing at FSCONS
We know that distributed computing is not a brand new topic. In fact there is a 7:21 minutes commercial from 1959 about it, and some of the ideas might still be relevant for the current "cloud computing" discussion.
Our part here was to host a track a this year's FSCONS called Divide and Reconquer , which focused on the problem of the trend towards centralised non-free Internet services, and possible solutions. Thanks to Sam's work and our speakers, all five talks went well, each generating extensive discussion in the question and answer sessions.
For example this month Fellowship interviewee Brian Gough even said to me after Michael Christen's demonstration of the peer to peer search engine Yacy, that by the end of next year he only wants to use distributed search engines for his web searches. Sounds like a good New Year's resolution. We will continue to work on this topic and animate more people to think about it, discuss it with others and work on solutions.
Get Active: Buy presents and donate - our support programs
End of the year often means buying presents and donating money. There are some ways to combine those two things, for example our support programs. So if you or some of your friends already use Libri or Amazon to buy presents, please inform them about the possibility to support us.
- If you buy books from bookzilla.de we will receive around 5% of the sales as a donation.
- If you have installed our plugin around 5% of your sale from amazon is donated to FSFE.
You can read Maëlle's blog post to find out how much was donated through those ways. If you buy your books and other presents from other shops, you can of course support FSFE through a one time donation or on a regular basis by becoming a Fellow of FSFE .