As was covered here last week, the high-profile Linux deployment in the
city of Munich has been put on a temporary hold while a legal review of
possible patent threats. This hold is a direct result of
two motions filed recently by a Green Party alderman in the city.
The motions, and their aftermath, have created a
small storm, both in the city of Munich itself, and among free software
advocates and anti-software patent activists. Those who oppose the
transition from proprietary to free software in Munich took the opportunity
to put a spanner in the works, and that prompted swift reactions from free
software advocates; the events seem to have created some stress between
the free software and anti-software patent communities.
The motivation behind the alderman's motions was simple: to persuade the
city of Munich to put more pressure on German and European
politicians to stop the EU's directive on the patentability of
And insofar as
they aimed to raise the problems associated with software patents among
German politicians, they have met with some success. The city of Munich
does appear to remain committed to its free software project, and despite
speculation in the press, the only thing about which we can be certain is
that, as LWN commented previously, the process will be slowed down
while the lawyers do their thing. The latest word is that the
delay may not last more than a few weeks.
So why, then, did the Free Software
Foundation Europe feel compelled to issue a press
release emphasizing that free software is no special case, and that the
dangers posed by software patents affect all small and medium enterprises
and projects, regardless of their licensing? I asked FSFE President
Georg Greve whether he felt that the Green party should be condemned for
its actions, and whether the FFII, which could be accused of spreading the
flames with a widely-reported press release of its
own, should be included in that as well.
Mr. Greve described "condemnation" as
"too strong a term," but it is clear that they aren't
too happy, especially given that they have been actively campaigning
against software patents for four years without jeopardizing free
software deployments. He asked:
Why did the FFII and Green Party target
the currently most prominent Free Software migration and not some
proprietary software projects?
In response, the Green Party in Munich notes that it is software patents
which threaten free software, and not anybody's attempts to fight the
imposition of patents. Ignoring the patent directive, they say, would be
far more dangerous than forcing this sort of confrontation.
As Tim Bray noted in
his weblog, almost all software in the market probably infringes on some
existing software patents, and the issue is one of financial resources
(i.e. the ability to defend a case in court), not one of licensing. Greve
claims that "[the] link is entirely artificial".
Bizarrely, part of the explanation of events lies in a mistake within the
FFII. The study that lists the patents that affect the Munich project was
never released as an FFII study; rather, it was a personal document on an
FFII member's homepage. Harmut Pilch, the President of the FFII, wrote that he was
"surprised by the announcement of Wilhelm Hoegner and the
mayor", and that he "learnt from both only through the
media". Nevertheless he goes on to defend the message given
out by the Green Party, if not the exact methods they used, pointing out
that the city of Munich had to assess the risk caused to its project by
The fallout of all of this is difficult to predict. We can be fairly sure
that, barring an extraordinary risk assessment by the city of Munich's
lawyers, their Linux project will go ahead. But it's impossible to judge
the impact that the news will have on the vote in European Parliament later
this year, and on other government projects involving free
software. However, if the EU says "no" to software patents, the free software
community in Europe could be saved from, possibly, the most damaging legal
framework seriously considered to date. The knock-on effect in other
countries and trade areas also can't be underestimated. So if steps like
those taken by the Green Party in Munich can derail software patents in
Europe at the expense of delaying, or even stopping, various free software
deployments in government, would it not be worth the sacrifice? In this
light the Green Party's actions seem like fine political ju jitsu.
An implicit assumption in that question is that the Green Party's
initiative can be followed elsewhere. The only other example of a major
deployment of free software in government in Europe is in Extremadura,
where local politicians are already firmly against software
patents. Employing this sort of technique elsewhere must be done
carefully: emphasizing the software patent risk to free software could end
up turning politicians against free software, rather than patents.
A compromise approach, as Greve suggested, would be:
Software advocates to always raise the point that their opposition against
SWPATs is not on the grounds of Free Software alone, but on the grounds of
the entire local hardware and software industry.
It may be too late for effective damage control in Munich, so we will have
to wait for the outcome there. But in the future, it would seem wise for
anti-software patent activists to be mindful of Greve's suggestion. Free
Software advocates must fight software patents, and we must recognize that
they are more important than individual deployments of free software. But
all the same, we mustn't unnecessarily prejudice politicians and those who
make technology decisions against free software for the sake of gains in
the fight against software patents.
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