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Re: patents and non-free



On Thu, Aug 30, 2001 at 12:14:44PM +0100, Edmund GRIMLEY EVANS wrote:
> > The funny part is the selfsame stuff that makes GIF viewers non-free is
> > blithely in gzip.  Ah well, consistency has never been a hallmark of
> > patents WRT non-free.
> 
> Does Debian have any kind of policy on patents at all?

Nothing written down anywhere.  If it were, it would require an audit of
the packages since it seems to be that patented software may not be
packaged or at least must be in non-free.  This seems to depend entirely
on politics and fear of lawyers sending nasty letters if we do the wrong
thing.


> Some random observations and questions:
> 
> Nothing in the DFSG seems to refer to patents, so I don't see how a
> patent can make a program non-free in the DFSG sense. Also, the USA
> isn't the only country in the world to have software patents (there's
> also Japan), so non-us doesn't seem very useful for dealing with
> patents.
> 
> I believe it is unclear whether it may be a patent infringement to
> distribute a program together with a warning that use of the program
> might be an infringement. It might be all right to distribute source
> but not binaries, but nobody seems to know.

If you think about what a patent grants and supposedly prevents, I expect
that Debian _should_ be in the clear anyway.  To use an analogy (and maybe
not the best one given some people's reactions to it), I was watching a
documentary about the history of Colt's revolvers and their competition.

Durring the time Colt had a patent on the revolver, several people made
similar devices.  Now they could make them all they wanted, but Colt did
successfully defend his patent against anyone trying to sell an imitation
of his patented invention.  Of course, since several gunmakers of the time
were making guns based on Colt's revolver (many trying to find ways to
beat his patent), the day the patent expired they immediately had guns to
sell.

A patent grants you a limited-term monopoly on the production and sale of
an invention.  You simply can't make a profit with something patented
without a license.  IP lawyers have tried to extend the power of the
patent beyond this, just as they have tried to extend the life of the
Copyright indefinitely.  At the heart of it though, patent law was written
with the assumption that the patent holder decides who can make a buck
with their patent.

Now maybe that's probably reaching a little bit given the fact that the
judges seem to be too easily swayed by lawyers who make more in a week
than some of us make in a year, but it's also reaching to say that laws
designed to keep other people from selling a product apply to a bunch of
people in a non-commercial, non-profit organization which is selling
nothing.


> In practice, if Debian receives a legal threat it surrenders
> immediately, for practical reasons, and also because Debian doesn't
> really want to encourage the use of patented algorithms, I suppose.

Debian has never received a legal threat from a lawyer over a patent.  Or
anything else I can remember at the moment actually.  Debian stands up
tall for what it believes in by preemptively refusing to touch anything
that COULD get such a legal threat.  Someone will deny that I'm sure, but
the public record indicates that I'm right.

Seems Debian's finally starting to regain some of its backbone regarding
non-US at least, but I haven't seen anything on that for a couple weeks
now.  Last I heard the people involved were going to ask HP's lawyers for
clarification on a few points, I guess that's still pending.


> Should Debian warn users about patents that might affect a program,
> even if no one is making any legal threats?

If a patent issue is known, it should be listed in the package description
IMO.  That way you can see it there before you download the package and
find out of the patent applies to you, or that you really don't care if
someone else says it does or not.  (I don't, but I've already offered my
opinion on that, which is worth perhaps three cents, accounting for
inflation.)

-- 
Joseph Carter <knghtbrd@debian.org>                 Free software developer

<BenC> -include ../../debian/el33t.h
<BenC> sendmail build...strange header name :)
<isildur> hahaha
* netgod laffs
<netgod> BenC: can u tell i used to maintain sendmail?  :P
<BenC> heh :)

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