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Software Patents in Europe

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Software patents will destroy the foundations of IBM's future

August 2nd, 2004

Dear Dr. Wladawsky-Berger,

I had the chance to meet you as chancellor of the Italian chapter of the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) at IBM's workshop in Milano on the 22nd of June. Let me introduce the president of FSFE, Georg Greve to you.

At present, the European Union is discussing plans for software patent legislation. In fact we already have 30,000 software patents. We are aware that IBM, as the world's largest holder of software patents, is strongly lobbying for their formal introduction throughout all EU member states.

Asking for legalisation of guns may indeed seem like the logical step when you are in possession of the greatest arsenal.

We know that your legal departments tell you software patents are necessary to protect your investment in innovation. That is a very understandable advice since they are the legal department. If they gave you any other advice, you might spend your money on more research, more products, more business and less lawyers.

IBM often states that it holds its software patents mainly for defensive reasons; to protect itself and its customers against attacks through software patents. So IBM squanders its money on an arms race that only exists because IBM mistakenly asked for introduction of software patents before.

Everyone should understand well enough by now that an arms race is hardly ever productive. It leads to unsustainable growth of ballast beyond any useful proportions until all but one participant in that race have lost. You may think that IBM would be the one surviving that arms race, and you may be right.

However as a result of participation in that arms race, IBM is slowly being deformed. It spends more and more energy on an arms race that is increasingly being questioned. Instances such as the FTC1 in the United States or the MIT2 are raising doubts about the sustainability of this model.

So while IBM is transforming in reaction to the arms race, upon its sudden end, IBM will find itself having become a grotesquely deformed giant with a suddenly useless weapon where all its energies go into sustaining that deformation. That giant may find itself facing hundreds of fresh, young and hungry companies entering the market with truly innovative products.

Three years ago, you described in San Francisco the importance of freedom in science: Scientists publish their thoughts and others add their ideas - this way knowledge is built up for the benefit of all of society, and the economy. You also came to the conclusion that Free Software is of similar importance to information technology as mathematics is to physics3.

Software patents do not only force IBM into deformation and wasting huge amounts of resources on otherwise useless legal growth, they also harm Free Software -- the basis of your long term plans around the on-demand strategy.

So when looking again at the size of your guns it seems that you will never want to fire them, as retaliation is likely to destroy the foundations of your future and obtaining these guns cost you your innovative potential. By advocating software patents, you not only enter into a race that will be to the detriment of all of economy -- including IBM. You also cut at the very basis of your long-term strategies.

In your own interest, please support our work against software patents in Europe. We are ready to discuss how.

With kind regards,

Stefano Maffulli
Italian chapter
Free Software Foundation Europe
Georg Greve
Free Software Foundation Europe

1 http://swpat.ffii.org/papers/ftc02/index.en.html
2 http://www.researchoninnovation.org/swpat.pdf
3 http://www.golem.de/0108/15366.html