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Brave GNU World, Issue #5

Jul 22, 1999, 07:29 (3 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Georg Greve)

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Issue #5

[DE | ES | FR | JA] Welcome to Georg´s Brave GNU World. This issue is dedicated mainly to the legal issues of free software, because politicians worldwide are struggling to create laws for the "Information Age", and lately they have been following a dangerous course. Examples of this are the developments in Australia and the plans for patentable program concepts in Europe. Even if the arguments in this column are very much based on Europe, the facts are the same worldwide and should be interesting for everyone.

Licenses and Patents

To explain why the planned patentability of program concepts is not only useless but dangerous, its probably best to start at the "Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament and the Economic and Social Committee" that can be found on the internet [4].

This communication blames legal problems with the prosecution of so-called "illegal copies" on the lack of patent protection for program concepts and concludes that the internal market is being weakened by the lack of patent laws.

The comparison of literary work and source code made in the above study is not uncommon as it helps to describe a new medium with old terms. Although the comparison may have its weaknesses, it is more realistic than most people realize. The stylistic range that programmers show is not at all unlike the range of literary authors. This is one of the reasons why it makes sense that source code legally meets the standards of literary work, which by definition doesn´t need to be patented as it is protected by the copyright. By the way: this only becomes clear after reading footnote 6 to paragraph 3.2.2. In the text itself it says "patenting of programs", the footnote clarifies that patents can only relate to the idea behind the program.

The paper´s reasoning tries to show a need for patents by pointing out the current problems with prosecuting violations of copyright laws; the commission then suggests that the patenting of program concepts should be allowed as long as they present a technical novelty. Applied to the book analogy this means that while books themselves are subject to copyright, the commission demands a patent law for entire literary genres.

It is the declared goal of politics to help innovation. Whether it would have helped innovation in literature if, say, George Orwell had claimed a patent for "books that describe a repressive regime" is doubtful.

If the parliament follows this recommendation and establishes such a patent law, it´ll become necessary to have courts decide about possible violations of this law. Since the spectrum of solutions for related problems is very wide due to different programming styles, even hardcore computer professionals sometimes can´t say whether something is a new or reinvented concept. This makes the salary of the lawyer the all-deciding factor in such a process, inevitably harming small firms and entrepreneurs while supporting the creation of monopolies.

The USA already have patent laws like this and it is possible that it is another reason why firms like Secure Shell [5] emigrated to Europe. That Microsoft is highlighted as a positive example for the use of patents doesn´t need further comment in the times of the antitrust trial.

It is an essential characteristic of software that the current state of the art creates new problems that are being realized and solved by different people at almost the same time. This usually leads to a struggle between programs, which only one or two survive. The competition leaves the survivors with higher quality and better adapted to the users' needs. This parallel evolution is a major factor for a stable and healthy information infrastructure.

The copyright laws already create a lot of separation and distrust but the introduction of patentable program concepts would have a much bigger effect. A lot of resources are wasted by marking off and monitoring the competitors or are consumed by repeatedly solving standard problems. Considering the lack of computer professionals this waste of resources is a significant hindrance to innovation.

A lot of big firms have realized the advantages of Free Software and open development recently. The IBM Deep Computing Institute, for instance, has put the source code of its Data Explorer visualization software online [6]. The increasing quantity of commercial Free Software shows that the business world is adapting to the needs and workings of a new medium. Trying to support this with a legal framework is a praiseworthy idea, but a patent law for program concepts is a step in the wrong direction.

The "computer medium" follows different rules than the traditional industry. Establishing such a patent law would merely be hiding the symptoms; the question should be how to fit the business concepts to the new age and not how to preserve old concepts at all costs.

You´ll find more information on the homepage of the FFII [7], i.e. the homepage of the Eurolinux Alliance [8] which is a joint project of AFUL [9] (a French group) and the FFII.

Even if this has exceeded the normal size of my articles I hope the danger of the planned patent law has become obvious now. Please pick a politician of your choice and send a letter and/or a copy of this column to him or her. Another possibility would be to contact the above groups.

But now on to some more practical topics. I´ll begin with

GNU Smalltalk

is the GNU implementation of Smalltalk-80 [10]. Smalltalk is an object-oriented programming language with a rather unusual syntax; details can be found in the relatively complete FAQs on the Smalltalk webpage [11].

Now that the 1.1.5 release of GNU Smalltalk is already 4 years old, the new maintainer Paolo Bonzini announced that version 1.6 is about to come out. This new version will contain a more stable and up to 5 times faster interpreter, a more complete smalltalk syntax and a better class library. Now the excellent portability extends to user-interfaces as well and it´s possible to load C-modules at runtime.

Plans for the future contain a GNU Smalltalk scripting level similar to that of Tcl, Perl or Python and extending the functionality to TCP/IP sockets and regular expressions.

I´ll continue with a program for visualisation of functions and data.

Xpplot

by Pavel Pokorny from Prague is very easy to install due to the fact that it consists of just one C source code file [12]. If this program has any underlying design concept, it´s simplicity. There are just two pages of help text and self-explanatory functions for xpplot interesting functionality.

Xpplot can display growing datasets like tail displays growing logfiles to visualize the development of a running project. On a mouseclick it outputs the selected coordinates so if xpplot is being used in a pipe you can easily give points of interest to another program. Additionally xpplot is script-capable and supports postscript output.

The program´s roots are deep in science as it was written in 1991 for the numerical analysis of nonlinear dynamic systems. As the program is being published under the GPL, it is no problem to use it for your own projects.

The author intended to create a library version of xpplot and include more numerical features like vector and matrix operation or numerical integration although the timing is still unclear.

I´d like to close with a short notice from Finland, which again seems to be ahead of things. I´ve been contacted by Mikko Markus Torni with the news that he is currently in the process of setting up the first GNU user group. Anyone who is interested in participating or maybe sponsoring this group is very welcome to send him email [13].

Of course, I can´t miss the obligatory reminder that this column relies on feedback, so don't hesitate to send ideas, questions and comments. You´ll find the address in the info box [1].

Info

[1] Send ideas, comments and questions to Brave GNU World
[2] Homepage of the GNU Project http://www.gnu.org/
[3] Homepage of Georg's Brave GNU World http://www.gnu.org/brave-gnu-world/
[4] "Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament and the Economic and Social Committee"http://europa.eu.int/comm/dg15/en/intprop/indprop/8682en.pdf
[5] Secure Shell http://www.ietf.org/html.charters/secsh-charter.html
[6] IBM Data Explorer Sourcecode http://www.research.ibm.com/dci/software.html
[7] Förderverein für eine Freie Informationelle Infrastruktur (FFII) http://www.ffii.org
[8] Eurolinux Alliance http://www.eurolinux.org/
[9] AFUL http://www.aful.org/
[10] "Smalltalk-80: the Language and its Implementation" by Adele Goldberg and David Robson
[11] Smalltalk-80 Webpage http://www.smalltalk.org
[12] Xpplot Sourcecode http://staff.vscht.cz/mat/Pavel.Pokorny/xpplot/xpplot.c.gz
[13] Mikko Markus Torni mailto:mtorni@freenet.hut.fi


Copyright (C) 1999 Georg C. F. Greve, German version published in the Linux-Magazin

Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this transcript as long as the copyright and this permission notice appear.