IBM has been a tremendous supporter of GNU/Linux, Apache, and other
free software products. For those of us who use free software daily,
the merits are known. But the for unwashed masses, IBM's support, and
recent advertising campaign, disproportionately visible in a vastly
shrunk market, has given GNU/Linux visibility, credibility, and a place
in the corporate IT agenda.
However, IBM has been straddling the bar with regards to intellectual
property and copy prevention mechanisms. It has to decide which side it
wants to be on before that bar comes up. Hard.
RAND policies are neither: they are not reasonable for free
software, they are not non-discriminatory. The language is misleading
and should be changed, the proposal of "UFO", uniform fee only, by
Richard M. Stallman, should replace it. IBM must straighten out its
internal conflicts over licensing and free software support. It must do
The current situation is sufficiently serious that the free software
community might be advised to look hard at finding another corporate
institution to balance the Incredibly Big Monopole that's established
itself as the institutional corporate presence in free software.
Replacing IBM isn't the goal, merely finding a tempering force. What's
needed is a firm that combines hardware, software, and services sectors,
comparable to IBM. I don't see a single player in the space that meets
the bill, but an alliance, or merger, of Sun and Oracle might fit the
response to the W3C Patent Policy comments, Gerald Lane writes:
Historically, companies in the IT Industry have agreed to licensed
patents under Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (RAND) terms when
participating in formal standards setting activities. The policy of
licensing patents under RAND terms and conditions has allowed our
best technical individuals to work together without becoming
burdened by patent issues. This approach encourages participants to
contribute more of their patented technology resulting in the
adoption of the best technical solutions.
The W3C Patent Policy Framework Proposal will never provide
complete certainty for specification developers and product
Unfortunately, RAND, or the preferred term, UFO, does provide
complete certainty in one regard: free software can't play.
patent law, anyone who "makes, uses, offers to sell, or sells any
patented invention", imports, "actively induces infringement", "offers
to sell or sells, or imports...a component of a patented machine",
violates patent. This directly affects free software developers,
distributors, users, and importers. There is little clear ground for
refuge or safety. And given the nature of software, and the number of
software-related patents existing, it's a virtual certainty that any
given program violates some patent.
It's been said that IBM's licensing department is a world unto
itself. Negotiations with a particular division can go swimmingly until
the agreement is run past the legal and licensing divisions, at which
point, decisions are made which seem entirely independent of other
generates significant revenue from licensing patents
company set a goal of US$1 billion annually in 1997, and has exceeded
this for the past several years, netting a reported $1.7 billion in
royalties for 2000.
What's less often stated is that this licensing doesn't include
software patents. IBM has avoided recouping revenues through software
patent licensing, according to an industry source, in part because they
don't want to set precedent and annoy the industry. The same reserve
clearly isn't holding sway in the standards space.
In a March, 1999 internal IBM "earthquake document" viewed by me, the
company's strategy for embarking on a free software course of action is
laid out. IBM clearly delineated the advantages of free software for
the company. Particularly emphasized was the fact that, not being owned
by any one party, free software is an avenue to avoid the
proprietization of other IT markets that have plagued IBM. Once the
king of the hill with its mainframe monopoly, the company was first
forced to share that space with other companies, and later became at
best a bit player in the open systems (Unix) and PC desktop space. The
company still smarts from its betrayal by Microsoft in the OS/2 / NT
wars, and skirmishes with Sun on Java.
Why then push for patenting Internet protocols? This is a direct
extension of Microsoft strategies as expressed in the 1998 "Halloween Document"
reports received by Eric S. Raymond. In Halloween Document
1, written by Vinod Valloppillil of Microsoft, the practice of
"de-commoditizing" core protocols is strongly endorsed:
Fold extended functionality into commodity protocols / services and
create new protocols
Linux's homebase is currently commodity network and server
infrastructure. By folding extended functionality (e.g. Storage+ in
file systems, DAV/POD for networking) into today's commodity
services, we raise the bar & change the rules of the game.
And more generally:
Blunting OSS attacks
Generally, Microsoft wins by attacking the core weaknesses of OSS
De-commoditize protocols & applications
OSS projects have been able to gain a foothold in many server
applications because of the wide utility of highly commoditized,
simple protocols. By extending these protocols and developing new
protocols, we can deny OSS projects entry into the market.
David Stutz makes a very good point: in competing with
Microsoft's level of desktop integration, "commodity protocols
actually become the means of integration" for OSS projects. There
is a large amount of IQ being expended in various IETF working
groups which are quickly creating the architectural model for
integration for these OSS projects.
As Eric Raymond points out in his commentary:
What the author is driving at is nothing less than trying to subvert
the entire "commodity network and server" infrastructure (featuring
TCP/IP, SMTP, HTTP, POP3, IMAP, NFS, and other open standards) into
using protocols which, though they might have the same names, have
actually been subverted into customer- and market-control devices
for Microsoft (this is what the author really means when he exhorts
Microserfs to ``raise the bar & change the rules of the game'').
The `folding extended functionality' here is a euphemism for
introducing nonstandard extensions (or entire alternative protocols)
which are then saturation-marketed as standards, even though they're
closed, undocumented or just specified enough to create an illusion
of openness. The objective is to make the new protocols a checklist
item for gullible corporate buyers, while simultaneously making the
writing of third-party symbiotes for Microsoft programs next to
impossible. (And anyone who succeeds gets bought out.)
This game is called ``embrace and extend''. We've seen
Microsoft play this game before, and they're very good at it.
When it works, Microsoft wins a monopoly lock. Customers lose.
has strongly endorsed RF policies. Even Gartner has strongly questioned RAND:
It is a mistake to allow the use of patented technology in
standards. The point of a standards body should be to share works
and come to a consensus for the betterment of the industry.
There is the question of whether or not a compromise policy could be
adopted -- say, RF for FS, royalty-free for free software. The problem
is that the domain space of software copyright, and patent, are
disjoint. Of the various formulations of such a policy, the
alternatives either allow for use of patents in proprietary software, as
the various proprietary bundling exceptions of common free software
licenses such as BSD, MIT, Apache, and Mozilla are utilized, or only a
very restrictive RF zone of use is defined in the specific case of the
GNU GPL or similar copyleft licenses. Only a strong Copyleft assures
that all derivative and combined works are also free software. Even in
the case of the Linux kernel, the module exemption might provide a
IBM should stop pissing on its own feet, it's embarrasing to watch
friends do that.
What do we want? RF only standards!
When do we want them? Now!