When CNET News.com asked Bill Gates about software patents, he shifted the subject to "intellectual property," blurring the issue with various other laws.
Then he said anyone who won't give blanket support to all these laws is a communist. Since I'm not a communist but I have criticized software patents, I got to thinking this might be aimed at me.
When someone uses the term "intellectual property," typically he's either confused himself, or trying to confuse you. The term is used to lump together copyright law, patent law and various other laws, whose requirements and effects are entirely different. Why is Mr. Gates lumping these issues together? Let's study the differences he has chosen to obscure.
Software developers are not up in arms against copyright law, because the developer of a program holds the copyright on the program; as long as the programmers wrote the code themselves, no one else has a copyright on their code. There is no danger that strangers could have a valid case of copyright infringement against them.
Thanks to Mr. Gates, we now know that an open Internet with protocols anyone can implement is communism.
Patents are a different story. Software patents don't cover programs or code; they cover ideas (methods, techniques, features, algorithms, etc.). Developing a large program entails combining thousands of ideas, and even if a few of them are new, the rest needs must have come from other software the developer has seen. If each of these ideas could be patented by someone, every large program would likely infringe hundreds of patents. Developing a large program means laying oneself open to hundreds of potential lawsuits. Software patents are menaces to software developers, and to the users, who can also be sued.
A few fortunate software developers avoid most of the danger. These are the megacorporations, which typically have thousands of patents each, and cross-license with each other. This gives them an advantage over smaller rivals not in a position to do likewise. That's why it is generally the megacorporations that lobby for software patents.
Today's Microsoft is a megacorporation with thousands of patents. Microsoft said in court that the main competition for MS Windows is "Linux," meaning the free software GNU/Linux operating system. Leaked internal documents say that Microsoft aims to use software patents to stop the development of GNU/Linux.
When Mr. Gates started hyping his solution to the problem of spam, I suspected this was a plan to use patents to grab control of the Net. Sure enough, in 2004 Microsoft asked the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) to approve a mail protocol that Microsoft was trying to patent. The license policy for the protocol was designed to forbid free software entirely. No program supporting this mail protocol could be released as free software - not under the GNU GPL (General Public License), or the MPL (Mozilla Public License), or the Apache license, or either of the BSD licenses, or any other.
The IETF rejected Microsoft's protocol, but Microsoft said it would try to convince major ISPs to use it anyway. Thanks to Mr. Gates, we now know that an open Internet with protocols anyone can implement is communism; it was set up by that famous communist agent, the U.S. Department of Defense.
Mr. Gates' secret is out now - he too was a "communist;" he, too, recognized that software patents were harmful - until Microsoft became one of these giants.
With Microsoft's market clout, it can impose its choice of programming system as a de-facto standard. Microsoft has already patented some .Net implementation methods, raising the concern that millions of users have been shifted to a government-issue Microsoft monopoly.
But capitalism means monopoly; at least, Gates-style capitalism does. People who think that everyone should be free to program, free to write complex software, they are communists, says Mr. Gates. But these communists have infiltrated even the Microsoft boardroom. Here's what Bill Gates told Microsoft employees in 1991:
"If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today's ideas were invented and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today... A future start-up with no patents of its own will be forced to pay whatever price the giants choose to impose."
Mr. Gates' secret is out now - he too was a "communist;" he, too, recognized that software patents were harmful - until Microsoft became one of these giants. Now Microsoft aims to use software patents to impose whatever price it chooses on you and me. And if we object, Mr. Gates will call us "communists."
If you're not afraid of name-calling, visit ffii.org (the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure), and join the fight against software patents in Europe. We persuaded the European Parliament once--even right-wing MEPs are "communists," it seems - and with your help we will do it again.
Richard Stallman is president of the Free Software Foundation as well as chief GNUisance of the GNU Project.