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Re: Task open for takers: review Debian status wrt OIN

Stefano Zacchiroli writes ("Re: Task open for takers: review Debian status wrt OIN"):
> On Thu, Jul 03, 2014 at 12:56:17PM +0200, Lucas Nussbaum wrote:
> > The tasks involved are:
> > - review and summarize the past discussions on this topic (I'm quite
> >   sure that such a summary already exists somewhere)
> I don't fancy picking up the general task that Lucas is suggesting
> (sorry), but related to this specific sub-task here are a couple of
> links that might come in handy:
> - https://lists.debian.org/debian-project/2008/07/threads.html#00001
> - https://lists.debian.org/debian-devel-announce/2011/02/msg00002.html

I went and read the OIN website in some detail.  I found no evidence
any more of the patent promotion that was a major objection the last
time this was discussed.

However, I would still prefer that Debian remained at arms' length
from the OIN.

Based on the website, I have the following analysis:

Firstly, some basics.  "Joining" OIN means signing a legal agreement
to cross-licence patents.  That's basically all it means.

Of course Debian cannot do that because it doesn't have legal
personality.  SPI could; individual DDs might too.  That would be a
matter for SPI or the DD.  But I think we should still have the
conversation properly here, for reasons which will become clear.

AFAICT there would be no concrete legal benefit to OIN of "Debian"
joining OIN.  AFAIAA SPI doesn't own any patents, and I imagine that
few if any DDs do.  OIN's gain would be political: effectively, we
would be endorsing OIN.

There could well be a concrete legal benefit to Debian of someone
(SPI, or DDs) joining OIN.  It might give us the legal ability to
distribute some patent-encumbered software, which we might otherwise
lack.  (This can only be the case for non-GPL'd software, since GPL'd
software must come with a general public licence for patents as well
as copyright.)  However, accepting that benefit would be contrary to
Debian's principles: relying on it it would breach DFSG 8 "License
Must Not Be Specific to Debian".  That of course does not mean that we
should definitely not join OIN - it just means that this extra legal
ability is not a reason /for/ joining OIN, and shouldn't change our
existing approach to patents (and software freedom judgements).

So our decision should be based on whether we think OIN is a "good
thing".  If we think it is a good thing we can probably come up with
some kind of statement or endorsement which would not need to involve

The way OIN's cross-licence works is that members agree not to enforce
patents on covered software _against each other_.  There is no
restriction on OIN members enforcing their patents against
non-OIN-members who distribute the same software.  So for example, if
Knoppix is not a member of OIN, and Google is and owns some patents,
there is nothing stopping Google sueing Knoppix.  And other members of
OIN would then be prevented by the OIN licence agreement from
retaliating against Google.  That makes OIN something of a mixed

As a side issue, this presents difficulties with following the thread
to SPI and suggesting that SPI should join OIN.  By the nature of the
OIN cross-licence agreement, all of a legal entities patents are put
into the pool.  So if any /other/ SPI project had patents which were
legally owned by SPI, they would be affected.  Joining OIN would
therefore be something that would potentially have a legal effect for
all of SPI's projects.  Of course any patents owned by SPI wouldn't be
used aggressively, but the OIN agreement might exclude retaliatory
patent claims against OIN members who make claims against
non-OIN-members on the basis of non-GPL'd software.

There are other problems I have with OIN:

OIN consistently refers to "intellectual property" when it ought to
refer to "patents".  As we know, the phrase "intellectual property" is
misleading.  It is also part of the campaign for the general public
acceptance of the ownership of ideas.

OIN is troublingly Linux-specific:

Firstly their terminology is problematic.  They refer to things they
call "Linux ... components" etc. which are really not anything to do
with Linux.  For example they list gcc and tcl.  So they are eliding
GNU and everyone else entirely.  This is objectionable in itself.
Even if that particular ship has sailed as far as much of the public
discourse is concerned, I still have a lot of sympathy with this
complaint from RMS and the FSF.  I think that public organisations
like OIN making very formal statements should avoid this tendentious
language.  (As we indeed do in the title of our own project, etc.)

Secondly, their actual cross-licence only comes into effect when the
distribution has a Linux kernel.  That's IMO unconscionable.  The
cross-licensing arrangement vanishes for BSD-based systems - just when
it is most needed, because there the base of the system is
permissively licenced and we don't have the GPL's very good defence
against patents eviscerating our and our users' freedoms.

Thirdly, in practice the agreement structure has loopholes that allow
the biggest patentholders to keep back some of the worst patents.
Sony and Philips (both OIN members) have joined the club but withheld
patents covering many important areas of functionality (DVRs,
electronic programme guides, Blu-ray, wireless, DRM, displays,
virtualisation, etc. etc. etc.).

Ultimately I think that therefore we should not be lending our
political support to OIN at this time.


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