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The difficulties and delays dogging the European Union's attempts to agree on a software patent policy continued in November, this time to the benefit of anti-software-patent interests.
In September last year, the European Parliament (a directly elected body, with representatives from all European Union member states) voted to accept a directive on the "patentability of computer-implemented inventions". This directive was only accepted subject to a set of amendments that constituted real and substantial limits on the patentability of software. This fact was recognised both by gratified anti-software-patent campaigners and by chagrined patent attorneys.
However, following this initial success, May 2004 brought a setback as the European Council of Ministers (a body composed of ministerial representatives from EU member states' governments) instead moved to advance a directive that excluded the substantial amendments adopted by the Parliament. As well as disheartening Free Software advocates, this brought howls of protest from the Parliamentarians who (in a not untypical tug of war between the branches of EU administration) accused the Council of flying in the face of democracy. After May, the obstacles still standing between the Directive and its final ratification were for the Council to formally adopt the directive, and then for the directive to pass before Parliament once more. This brings us to the present day.
The directive has not yet found its way into parliament for an encore, but instead has floundered in the Council chamber. Poland, a new entrant into the EU (and apparently relatively undecided on this issue in May), has changed the position adopted by its representative in the summer Council meeting and now opposes the directive precisely because no effective limits are placed on the patentability of software.
This heroic about-turn by Poland, as well as similar pronouncements emanating from Austria should remind us that this fight is certainly still there to be won. The efforts of prominent Free and Open Software figures like Linus Torvalds, Michael Widenius, and Rasmus Lerdorf who have raised their voices to say "No to Software Patents" are welcome, especially as they provide an example to all of us that if we feel this issue is important then we should make our opinions known. Those supporting a future software industry stretched on a rack of software patents are certainly not shy about pushing their case. Truly, can we afford the luxury of silence? Wladyslaw Majewski, president of the Internet Society of Poland puts the point starkly:
"The questionable compromise that the EU Council reached in May was the biggest threat ever to our economic growth, and to our freedom of communication. The desire of the patent system and the patent departments of certain large corporations must never prevail over the interests of the economy and society at large."( quoted in The Inquirer).
During November, Slashdot highlighted and discussed a very illuminating article at Groklaw, written by a retired attorney. Written in the context of Novell's current anti-trust case against Microsoft, the article points out that quite apart from the interest stirred up by the substance of this particular case, this is also a great opportunity to store up ammunition for future legal adventures. The key to this opportunity is that the discovery process will, at least temporarily, move a lot of Microsoft material into the public eye. The trick is then to store it up for future use.
The Register and Security Focus have reported that Fyodor, the author of the port-scanning network security tool Nmap, has found that his software writing has brought him into surprisingly close terms with the FBI. Apparently the Feds have begun to look for access to his webserver logs in order to identify individuals or organisations downloading tools like Nmap.
Open Source Risk Management has steered a somewhat controversial course since arriving on the scene offering to indemnify open source developers against hostile intellectual property lawsuits. In a bid to encourage use of its services, OSRM has at times appeared to over-emphasise the risks open source software developers and users expose themselves to. As reported by internetnews.com, this perception has now resulted in Pamela Jones (of Groklaw) resigning her position as litigation risk research director for the group. In particular, Pamela wished not to contribute to activities that she felt were creating fear and doubt about Linux, and providing ammunition to anti-open-source interests.
The potential damage caused by such publicity is demonstrated by the usefulness of one particular OSRM report to Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, who used it to claim in front of Asian business leaders that Linux violates over 200 patents. However, one should not be too critical of OSRM, since quite apart from any FUD there does appear to be a real and growing likelihood that open source software will in the future be attacked using patents. Microsoft's statements on the issue of intellectual property point in this direction, as does its policy of substantially increasing its own patent portfolio. This portfolio can be used either defensively, or offensively, but either way its existence and rapid growth indicate a messy time ahead, and it seems the lawyers can already smell blood in the water.
Highlighting this threat can lead to some bad publicity, such as Ballmer's showboating in Asia, but it is also useful for generating awareness. And as pointed out by Ballmer, and highlighted by The Register, our current framework of international agreements governed by the WTO means that these issues will have ramifications right across the globe. How any possible patent-war will pan out is still an open question, but having good awareness in the Free Software ranks of the risks and dangers that are faced is sure to be a good thing.
The FSF is already taking steps aimed at protecting Free Software from hostile parties armed with heavy patent portfolios. The GPL, which is currently being redrafted towards a 3rd revision (considered overdue by some), may yet offer some protection against patent attacks. Clever legal manoeuvres, however, are not necessarily a sufficient condition for safety, so it is important to be aware of opportunities for practical action, and to try to spread awareness of these risks as widely as possible.
Linux Insider has some interesting comments from Andrew Tanenbaum disputing findings in Kenneth Brown's report for The Alexis de Tocqueville Institute.
John C. Dvorak writing at CBS MarketWatch thinks Microsoft is planning to make an entry into the Linux marketplace, and that this explains the effort invested in the Lindows trademark lawsuit.
The Register presents an outsider's view of technology in China, and opportunities for GNU/Linux.
O'Reilly on Knoppix for Windows users.
The Inquirer reports on Linux's position in the Japanese 3G mobile phone market.
A look at the Geronimo project, from the Apache Software Foundation.
Round up of hard real-time options under Linux.
Boot managing your Linux and Windows box, and in particular recovering from the Windows installer's boorish overwriting of your original bootloader.
Linux Weekly News has published interesting articles on binary-only firmware, and on the current state of play in the BSD arena.
Linux Weekly News roundup of PowerPC GNU/Linux distributions.
Intel has announced an initiative that shows a growing interest in Linux. The new quick-start kit for systems-integrators, launched in the Asian market, is intended to facilitate the building of Linux-based desktop PCs. This is a small move towards providing the kind of support Windows PC integrators have grown used to.
The European Union Interchange of Data Between Administrations Project has publicised the decision of the local government in the Dutch city of Haarlem to switch 2000 desktops to OpenOffice.org. As well as currently using GNU/Linux in server applications, the local government is exploring the feasibility of migrating desktops to the operating system, with initial estimates indicating that 20% of desktops could be migrated without causing particular difficulties or inconvenience to employees.
The Dutch prime minister and the office of the Irish prime minister have also encouraged European governments to consider open source software in the spirit of inter-agency collaboration. Now, while such pronouncements are good to hear, this writer is relatively familiar with Irish government policy on these matters, and it is anything but coherent. If this is the case elsewhere, then if your elected representative pays lip-service to open source and Free Software, then perhaps it would be helpful to follow up on this with a letter, to let them know you paid attention, that you'll remember what they said, and that if they do a U-turn on it then they'd better knock on somebody else's door come election time!
SSC, publisher of Linux Journal and former supporter of Linux Gazette, will be launching a new magazine in February 2005. Aimed at Linux newcomers, TUX will be a monthly print and online publication providing articles of interest to desktop users.
This new publication has also received comment on Andy Oram's weblog at O'Reilly.com.
OSDir.com has published a screenshot tour of Damn Small Linux 0.8.4. Damn Small Linux is a business card size (50MB) bootable Live CD Linux distribution that strives to have a functional and easy to use desktop.
Linux Journal has published an interesting article on gnuLinEx. GnuLinEx is the Debian-based operating system used by the government of the Autonomous Community of Extremadura, Spain. The system is used widely in the region's schools, and also in local government administration.
O'Reilly has published a book dealing with some of the cool things you can accomplish with the Debian-based GNU/Linux live-CD Knoppix: Knoppix Hacks.
This book was reviewed on Slashdot (the review was very favourable, to the extent that it was linked on the press-release advertising this title).
Patrick Volkerding, coordinator of Slackware Linux, has been having serious health problems in recent weeks. Patrick has found it difficult to obtain satisfactory treatment from the doctors that he has visited to date, so he has solicited help from members of the community.
Linuxforums.org has published a review of Topologilinux. Based on the much respected Slackware, Topologilinux is a free Linux distribution designed to be run on top of or inside an existing windows system. Thus, Topologilinux does not require any repartitioning of the system's hard drive, and instead it uses a single file as a linux root system.
Lulu, a company that offers people the chance to self-publish at relatively modest costs (at least for small production runs) is now aiming to extend this service to open source software developers. The intention is to sell boxed sets comprising the software itself, as well as printed and bound manuals and documentation. An example of this class of product is the Fedora GNU/Linux distribution.
O'Reilly has announced the availability of a new book, Windows to Linux Migration Toolkit. From the publisher's website:
It provides migration process planning, automated migration scripts, anti-virus/anti-spam solutions, and specific migration and deployment details for all relevant technologies. The CD includes valuable automated scripts for migrating any flavor of Windows to Linux.
Another title likely to be of interest to readers is SELinux. This book provides a background to SELinux, as well as guidelines on its installation and subsequent use.
The release of a stable version 1.0 of Mozilla Firefox, tied in with an unprecedented publicity drive for the open-source application, has been followed by an exceptionally strong download-demand for the package. Indeed it seems that the browser is even eating into the market share of the currently dominant Microsoft Internet Explorer, which has seen its share reportedly drop below 90%. The upsurge in demand also seems to be creating a good business environment for Mozilla-savvy developers.
Mick is LG's News Bytes Editor.
Originally hailing from Ireland, Michael is currently living in Baden,
Switzerland. There he works with ABB Corporate Research as a
Marie-Curie fellow, developing software for the simulation and design
of electrical power-systems equipment.
Before this, Michael worked as a lecturer in the Department of
Mechanical Engineering, University College Dublin; the same
institution that awarded him his PhD. The topic of this PhD research
was the use of Lamb waves in nondestructive testing. GNU/Linux has
been very useful in his past work, and Michael has a strong interest
in applying free software solutions to other problems in engineering.
Before this, Michael worked as a lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, University College Dublin; the same institution that awarded him his PhD. The topic of this PhD research was the use of Lamb waves in nondestructive testing. GNU/Linux has been very useful in his past work, and Michael has a strong interest in applying free software solutions to other problems in engineering.