"Power to the Parliament" is not a typical slogan for any demonstration, but
when the demonstrators are predominantly young businessmen and programmers,
you can be sure something new is happening. In response to legislation
concerning software patents, hackers and entrepreneurs across the EU, and in
nations just joining the EU, have come together first to convince Parliament
of their cause, and now to defend Parliament against the European Commission
and Council. Last week saw a demonstration and a series of conferences that
mark a watershed in the political organization and awareness among the
members of this new
movement; GNU/Linux user groups, hackers from MPlayer, consultants from
MySQL, activists from the FFII, UKCDR, APRIL, FSF Europe and more hackers,
journalists and bemused bystanders met to talk not about code but about
politics, and without any trolls in sight.
First, a little background for context. Last year saw the Foundation for a
Free Information Infrastructure's (FFII) campaign against software patents
take center stage in the hacker world as the European Parliament began to debate
the issue. After frenzied lobbying in late August and September, an amended
piece of legislation was passed, explicitly banning software patents.
But the victory was short-lived, as the European Council and Commission took
the bill and published their interpretation, removing all of the amendments
the anti-software patent activists fought so hard for. A lot of EU
legislation goes through this sort of complex procedure, known as
the legislative and executive branches both develop the legislation.
On the morning of Wednesday, April 14, a demonstration launched two days of
protests and discussion to counter the Council and Commission's position.
The demonstration itself was a visual but low-key event, with between 500 and
800 people marching around Brussels with yellow balloons, banners and a few
sandwich boards. The march culminated with a pantomime outside the European
Commission, satirizing the Commission's tendency to listen to big business
(principally Nokia) rather than Small and Medium Enterprises and
individuals; there was also a human chain and an en-mass balloon release.
Almost as soon as it had finished, we entered the European Parliament for the
conference on software patents, organized by the FFII and the
International Institute of Infonomics.
The purpose of the conference was to bring key activists, MEPs and experts
together to continue the discussion of software patents in Europe, and to try
to measure the effects of the two competing legislations (Parliament's and
The first panel, discussing "Recent Developments in Granting and Use of ICT
Patents", gave software patent experts, business owners and activists a
chance to clarify the extent of patent granting and the effects it has
already had on business in Europe. The presentations were informative, though
not controversial for the majority of the participants; they indicated that
approximately 20,000 software patents have been granted in Europe, and that,
though unenforceable, they have already done considerable damage to many
small businesses. Most of the problems seemed to be caused by companies
needing to file software patents as a means of defense against litigation,
and to counter other companies' patent portfolios.
The second panel, discussing "EU Legislation Benchmarking: Parliament's vs
Council's version of Software Patent Directive" was perhaps more interesting.
Sitting next to anti-software patent law scholars and activists were
representatives from the European Commission and the European Patent Office
(EPO). The law scholars and activists described, from an academic rather than
a pragmatic point of view, why software is un-patentable, and why the software
industry doesn't even need them. Then we listened to the EPO claim that they
didn't file any software patents, and that they saw the legislation as a
clarifying exercise, and the Commission claim, with little substantial
argument or empirical evidence, that their legislation would help the
industry. Commission representatives also implied, amazingly, that the
legislative process in this
case ought to aim to settle the issue soon rather than take the time to
approach the problem more carefully.
The third and final panel discussed "Competitivity of Knowledge Economies",
and gave MEPs and economists the chance to present their views on where
software patents lie in the broader picture of Europe's "ICT economy". Moving
away from arguments about software patents per se, they presented various
analyses of how European industry might lose out in the future
if software patents were introduced.
The next day, we attended a second conference, organized by the FFII and the
Green-EFA Alliance, focusing on the place of
free software in Europe in general. The day opened at 9am with a series of
presentations from GNU/Linux User Groups (G/LUGs) from around Europe,
explaining to the many MEPs, Parliamentary assistants and other outsiders
what G/LUGs are, what they do, what free software is, and how the free
software community works. In contrast to the previous day's conference, there
was a good opportunity for discussion, and many activists got the opportunity
to discuss how G/LUGs can improve their relationships with each other, and
with the EU.
Following this, there was a rather anarchic installfest. Various MEPs had
Mandrake Linux installed on their PCs, while the rest of the conference's
participants milled around talking to each other, and in my case, phoning
more MEPs for meetings.
The conference reconvened after lunch, for three more panels. The first was on
"Fair Use / Copie Privée, and proved, for the geeks in the room, far more
familiar. A lawyer from the EFF, Jon Lech Johansen (DeCSS) and a lawyer from
Test-Achat, a Belgian civil rights group, discussed with the floor the state
of "fair use" law within the EU, touching on DVDs, audio CDs and DRM in
general. Aside from general discussion, we were treated to a brief exchange
between the EFF and a person defending
Blizzard's case against
The second and third panels continued in much the same vein, discussing free
and open source software in Europe. The afternoon produced a growing
consensus that we ought to be pushing for Free Software in the public sector
across Europe far harder, and seemed to bolster the support from MEPs. By the
end of the conference, most seemed considerably more excited by the future
But aside from the many discussions, it is important to ask: what did the two
days achieve? We cannot defeat the European Commission and Council over
software patents, and place Free Software at the heart of Europe's ICT
economy, with words alone. Fortunately, though no major tangible
breakthroughs were made, the community came away with a lot of substantial
work done, and some good plans for the future.
G/LUGs across Europe, through Eurolinux and the FFII's mailing lists, will be
drafting strategies to work together to promote Free Software more
effectively, drawing on each others' successes. A first draft of such a
document was written during the conference, and translated into two or three
languages by willing hackers. The FFII is now leading a project tentatively
called the MEP Toolbox, to develop a comprehensive database of MEP's
positions on important digital rights issues, and an accompanying lobbying
guide for inexperienced hackers. And, as a personal measure of its success,
during the recent Linux User & Developer Expo in London, the FFII-UK, the
UKCDR and the AFFS got their heads together (one of which being mine) to work
out a more effective strategy of cooperation and campaigning.
So long as the enthusiasm can be maintained, and promises and ideas developed
in Brussels can be turned into concrete deeds, the future in Europe certainly
looks a lot brighter than it did a few weeks ago. We may have the beginnings of
a Europe-wide movement that can effectively tackle digital rights issues, and
push Free Software. We just need to ensure we don't renege on our promises.
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