Interview: Pieter Hintjens

Pieter Hintjens is the president of the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII) and heavily involved in the fight against software patents in Europe. At FOSDEM he'll highlight the current situation in Europe, and what the FFII is doing about it.

What do you hope to accomplish by giving this talk?

It's important that free software developers - like me, I've been writing free software since 1991 - remain activists in protecting their freedoms. Open standards is a very important area. Software patents is also very important.

So at FOSDEM I'll be announcing the launch of a new FFII campaign, and I'll be asking the audience to take part, and spread the message. It's a fun campaign, and aimed not just at programmers, but everyone who has a brain and a passion for justice. Also we'll be giving out posters, and I might wear a funny hat. (Just kidding about the hat.)

How does the FFI pursue its goals? Which activities are performed?

We're an association of activists from software, law, even the patent profession. We organise on email lists, and locally, across Europe. We study the problems, discuss and develop policies, and then lobby to get them accepted by politicians. It is very hard work, needs a lot of energy. A lot like writing free software... and the work we do can be seen as "free activism", many eyes making the problems more shallow.

What's your opinion on the influence of lobbyists on politics, and about the democratic process in the EU in general?

I don't like the idea that business can buy laws, but to be honest, politicians are not experts and need input from those who know the real situation. The FFII lobbies, so I can't say lobbyists are evil as such. Also, parliamentarians are good at ignoring professional lobbyists.

The real problem is outside parliament, in the EU Council and Commission, where lobbying is hidden and groups like ours have no access. A register of all lobbyists would be good. But even then, EU democracy is very fragile, and without a good constitution, will remain easy meat for special interests. What we want to see is a strong EU Parliament (perhaps with two houses) that can make laws.
Representative democracy has its problems, but it's answerable to the electorate.

Europe's democratic deficit is behind many of the bad laws being produced. Like the data retention law last year, where your online and mobile tracks are saved for ten years or more. Like the enforcement directive now, which wants to make ISPs responsible for p2p copying.

The case against software patents, is it connected in some ways to a call for a reform of the patent system in general?

Absolutely. The patent system has been driven by the demand for more patents at any cost, for years. Europe has been imitating the US, but it's starting to get silly. The US patent office is now dealing with a backlog of over a million patents. The European Patent Office is starting to realise the problem, and has a new incoming president who is a lot more sensible than the last one (Alain Pompidou). The EPO used to describe itself as "in the business of granting patents". Hopefully that will change. But we want to see even more radical reforms. I'll be explaining some of this at FOSDEM.

Do you feel that the issue has gotten enough attention?

There is never enough attention for such an important issue. But it's not enough to make noise; we have to have a clear agenda, concrete goals, and tangible instructions for our politicians. The FFII has always been very good at this, which is why politicians respect us.
My job is to bring the FFII's message to a wider audience, to explain that software patents are just one symptom of a wider problem, basically a democratic deficit, in which specialists make laws to benefit themselves and their friends. This is not acceptable in a modern society. So the solution to the patent issue is ultimately democracy, and that is a very, very large problem to work on.

So the case against software patents is only a small beginning. But has it already finished? Will the efforts to legalize software patents ever stop?

The battle will continue until we have new laws that clarify what can and cannot be patented, and new institutions that make those laws work. The current patent system dates from 1972, it's outdated, and hardly compatible with the EU.

Are there, to you, benefits to (non-software) patents?

In some domains, especially pharmaceutics, patents can help. But it's very different to patent a chemical formula and a software technique. Patents on chemicals are almost like a form of copyright.

Basically the patent system is meant to encourage firms to publish their work, rather than keep it secret. The theory is that this publication is a good thing, and the short monopoly is a good price to pay for it.

It's a theory that works if the monopoly is very precise, and protects exactly the invention. But this theory has been lost, and the patent industry now claims patents as a "reward for innovation", which is bogus. The reward for innovation should be better products, and more sales. So patents are seen as a new form of property, and the original "deal" [is being] forgotten. This is not sustainable, of course.
Society pays the cost, and when the cost is too high, the deal falls apart.

Isn't it time for a more thorough worldwide synchronisation of intellectual property law?

Every country has different needs, and the idea of "one law for the whole world" is bogus. Europe has many languages, many more small and medium enterprises than the US or China. We need patents that respect that.

However, if we can define a good, working patent system for Europe, we should be able to export that to the US, and further.

Which projects and companies have collaborated to fend off software patents in Europe?

FFII is mostly supported by membership fees, and contributions of work on a huge scale. So most of the support is by individuals who I can't list here, but who are the real force of the FFII. There are many companies who have fought with us against software patents, and who make donations, or fund events like the European Patent Conference ( Proportionally, most of the support comes from smaller firms.

How does it feel to put so much energy in political issues, instead of technical ones?

I'm lucky to have a very good team at iMatix, who do the heavy technical work for me. I've spent twenty-five years programming day and night, and it's quite nice to take a break.

Most of my work with the FFII is organisational, helping people to work together in better ways, and this works both ways. I get new experience in how to create flexible teams, and the FFII gets my experience from two decades of larger-scale projects.

Working with the FFII - so many brilliant individuals - is immensely rewarding, though obviously not financially. But money is not the key to happiness, as every free software developer knows. You have to wake up every morning and do the right thing, respect your own needs, and the needs of others.

Thank you very much for answering these questions.

Thank you for asking them, and I will look forward to meeting you and everyone else at FOSDEM!

Additional links:

Creative Commons License
This interview is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Belgium License.