Richard Stallman & Freedom Through Software
by Ian Steadman
The infamous programmer and 'free software' activist Richard Stallman is currently halfway through a speaking tour of New Zealand, and today delivered one of his speeches on the restrictions software patents place on the freedom to develop new programs.
Stallman's lecture, entitled, "The Danger of Software Patents," is one of four speeches being given on his tour, and is a brief and simple summary of the conflicts that come into place through the application of patent law to software development. Computer programming is, unlike other types of engineering, built upon other ideas and other pieces of software, and the tools they use are themselves kinds of programs. Patents, unlike copyright, don't protect specific pieces of software, but instead the ideas and tasks that that software is intended to perform. So somebody can patent the concept of a spreadsheet that updates itself automatically if one cell is changed, and pretty soon everyone wanting to make a spreadsheet is forced to deal with the patent holder who might want to hold onto their monopoly of that particular 'trivial' idea. People building houses don't have to deal with the possibility of being sued because they didn't pay the person holding a patent on bricks and mortar – yet somebody trying to program a computer will constantly find themselves blocked in like this.
Because so many ideas, and so many interpretations of those ideas, can be found in patents it can be near-impossible for a small developer in his bedroom to compete with the large computing firms and their teams of lawyers and their thousands of held patents – indeed, it actively prevents them from being able to challenge them, as the only way the big companies will allow the lone programmer to keep working is if he lets them have access to his one patent in return for access to their dozens which cover everything else his program does. The patents, when it comes to software, are doing the exact opposite of what they are intended to do in other fields by making it impossible for anyone to match the financial muscle of the largest corporations.
The end of Stallman's speech reveals the crux of the matter, the reason he cares so passionately about this issue – it's integral to freedom in a world where so many people rely on software that everyone can have access to that software. He implores the audience to fight, politically, any movements funded by big corporations to introduce or tighten patent legislation in countries around the world – whilst it may be too late for the US, New Zealand has no such laws so far and as such he believes it integral that they be prevented from being brought in. His motives are moral – again and again it returns to the issue of freedom, that humanity will benefit from the freedom to do with software as it so chooses, both economically and socially.
In a brief interview afterwards Stallman talked more of the political incentives to free up software, and also how he wanted it to be clear that the software patent and free software issues were separate but related. Also, he wants to impeach God.