FOSDEM '08 is a free and non-commercial event organised by the community, for the community. Its goal is to provide Free and Open Source developers a place to meet.


Interview: Pieter Hintjens

Pieter Hintjens will take the stage to give an update about software patents.


What's your motivation for speaking at FOSDEM?

I think it's important that people who care about free software understand the political aspects of it. We live in a political world, and freedom always needs defending. So I hope to inspire maybe one or two people to take up arms, so to speak.

How was the response last year at FOSDEM?

It was interesting. I spoke about "ethical patents", which freaked out a lot of people. It's always fun to shock people with unconventional approaches to solving issues. Why are software patents so bad? Look at how they discriminate against programmers like us, and you have a large part of the answer. Ethics can actually be a very powerful tool for cutting through lobbyists propaganda.

But I also learned something - keep it simple. So this year my talk will be less intellectual and hopefully more fun.

What has happened 'in the field' since then?

The EPO (European Patent Office, ed.)'s plan to take over European patent courts - EPLA - has died.
I think we played a little part in that. Now we are facing an EU Commission plan to do the same. It's still evil, but less evil.

And we saw the start of a real global standards war. Not just a fight between two competing formats - ODF and OOXML - but between two competing ideologies - free/open, and 0wned. Whole countries have been chosing one side or the other - look at the Netherlands. I like a good fight -- blame my Scottish ancestry.

Do you feel that politicians and lawmakers now have a better understanding?

What has happened is that FOSS has emerged as a real economic power, a significantly better technology. In 2005, politicians still thought that FOSS was perhaps 5% of the software industry. Today they start to realize that it's much more, perhaps even a majority by now, and the movement is one-way. So any political discussion that ignores the needs of FOSS is by definition out of date, and politicians know this.

We are very close to the point when "closed" is the niche, the buggy horse out-performed by the FOSS motor car. I've been writing free software since 1991, so this is of course a wonderful thing for me personally. We were right, and I can today speak to politicians about free software and they nod their heads.

Companies like Sun and Red Hat have taken an active position against software patents. How has this affected your cause?

To be honest, the software sector, especially in the states, has been unable to take a solid position against software patents. Red Hat have been a long supporter of our cause, and I want to thank them for that. Sun... well, they seem unwilling to upset Microsoft, and Microsoft has been pushing hellbent for software patents in Europe, along with Siemens and Phillips, despite the fact that MS is the number one victim of software patent troll attacks in the USA. At a recent conference I attended, a Sun spokesman declared that trademarks were more of a threat to free software than software patents. Very freaky!

The day that the software sector forms a clear front against software patents, as pharma does for a unitary patent system (where all industries are blighted by the same 20-year patent model), will be the day our cause comes close to winning.

In the mean time, the United States are progressing toward a reform of the patent system. Do you think the needs of FOSS developers will be addressed?

Note that the needs of open source developers and closed source developers are the same, when it comes to patents. They don't help any programmer, period. But even so the software industry is divided, and terrible at lobbying. I've seen some of the attempts to push for a patent system reform. Compared to the muscle and lobbying power of the pharma industry, it's ants pushing against elephants.

Perhaps a community-based push in the states could work, as it has worked in Europe so far. But I've not seen any real attempts to create such a community, yet.

Are you optimistic about the situation in Europe?

I think that the world economy is heading towards a real crisis, as we run out of raw materials - not just oil - and find ourselves unable to sustain the industrial economy. There is no way back, technological advance is a ratchet. We cannot regress to horse power because we have forgotten our horse technology. So we can only move forwards, and for me that means digital. A digital world can be non-polluting, sustainable, and still provide real economic growth. Look at Second Life, it's more than a game; it has a lot of elements of a sustainable digital future.

Software patents, more than any other protectionist barrier, put that digital future at risk. It's plausible to expect that every interesting part of the digital world will be patented so long as software patents exist. Do we have twenty to fifty years to allow the patents to expire? Maybe, maybe not.

Europe is signficant, because we don't allow software patents nationally, only at that artificial EPO level. There are real reforms happening in Europe, unlike the USA. So we have a chance to create a Europe free of software patents. 2008 is a key year for that.

I'm a bit pessimistic because the community that fought against software patents in 2005 seems to have problems to look into the future, it's almost as if the community grew around that very specific challenge, and cannot evolve to solve new ones.

But on balance I'm optimistic because I believe in people power, in the wisdom of crowds to assemble and challenge ideology, when they have the freedom to do so. Freedom to assemble and speak, privacy from surveillance, freedom from an oppressive state. We need these, and a part of our work consist of fighting for these.

Future generations will owe a debt of thanks to everyone who stands up now to defend our collective freedoms. I think the last fifteen years in free software have proved that we really can make the world a better place.

Thansk for your inspirational answers.