Clearing Landmines by Peter Brown
When the FSF was founded in 1985 there did not yet exist an all free software operating system so our efforts focused on sponsoring the GNU system. The free software community was small at first, but it quickly grew in numbers and in its geographic reach.
In addition to software development in the 1980s, the FSF began to focus on the licensing of free software and the idea of protecting free software from efforts to make it proprietary. Developing and refining the idea of a copyleft, FSF founder and president Richard Stallman wrote the GNU General Public License and later the GNU Free Documentation License--the license used for much free software documentation and many manuals, as well as for countless other works, including all of the articles on Wikipedia.
Throughout the 1990s, the GNU system along with the kernel Linux was able to run as a standalone operating system. Development happened so rapidly that by the end of the decade, our focus was switching from pure software development to spreading the philosophy and tackling the growing threats to free software that came as result of its success.
Today you can, rather easily, install an all free operating system that has been produced from the contributions of hundreds of thousands of people from around the world. However, what took over twenty years of community development to build and spread is under threat: threats from government legislation, threats from Digital Restrictions Management (DRM), threats from software patents. The FSF has been campaigning these past few years to counter these threats.
Our anti-DRM campaign has had tremendous success and DRM is in decline in the music industry. After eighteen months of community review, we released GPLv3 on June 29--a license that neutralizes anti-free software laws like the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) and protects free software from Tivoization. Now, we are turning our attention to clearing the landmines represented by software patents.
In 2004 Richard Stallman said,
Software patents are the software project equivalent of land mines: each design decision carries a risk of stepping on a patent, which can destroy your project. However, fighting patents one by one will never eliminate the danger of software patents, any more than swatting mosquitos will eliminate malaria.
Software patents obstruct the progress of software development and they pose a threat to every software developer looking to contribute to the development of the GNU system and any free software project. Indeed, Microsoft is using the threat of software patents to extract tolls from corporations for using GNU/Linux and is threatening free software distributors.
There are many arguments against the patentability of software that one can logically make, but it is a commonly held perception that software is patentable within the USA, and the best that can be done is to limit the effect of software patents by engineering around them or looking for prior art to challenge the validity of a particular claim. But this perception is wrong. The US Supreme Court has ruled three times that software cannot be patented, and has worked hard to draw a line to ensure patentable manufacturing processes could utilize steps in software as long as there was a physically inventive step.
Unfortunately, the lower Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has made a mess of the work of the Supreme Court, and it is that mess we aim to clear up--and with it, all the software patent landmines.
The Free Software Foundation is launching a coalition effort to End Software Patents (ESP). Inside this bulletin, the director of ESP Ben Klemens helps clarify the quicksand upon which software patents rest.