Multinational Monitor

JUL/AUG 2004
VOL 25 No. 7


Monopoly Medicine: The Built-In Inefficiencies of a Patent-Based Pharmaceutical R&D System
by James Love

It’s in the Genes: Patent Barriers to Genetic Research
by Lee Drutman

Buy the Numbers: Publishers Seeks Special Database Monopoly Protections
by Robin Gross

The Great Global R&D Divide
by Gunnar Westholm, Bertrand Tchatchoua and Peter Tindemans


The Rise of the Free Software Movement: Freedom from Proprietary Control
an interview with Richard Stallman

A Conspiracy of Silence: The Suppressed Evidence About Anti-Depressants
an interview with Charles Medawar


Behind the Lines

A Healthcare R&D Treaty

The Front
Rigging the System - Lay Does Perp Walk - Remembering Paul Klebnikov - "The Shame of Humanity" - Grief for the Reefs

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award


Names In the News


The Rise of the Free Software Movement: Freedom from Proprietary Control

an interview with Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman is an icon of the Free Software Movement, and the founder of the GNU Project, launched in 1984 to develop the free software operating system GNU. The name "GNU" is a recursive acronym for "GNU's Not Unix." Today, Linux-based variants of the GNU system, based on the kernel Linux developed by Linus Torvalds, are in widespread use. There are estimated to be some 20 million users of GNU/Linux systems today. Stallman is the principal author of the GNU Compiler Collection, a portable optimizing compiler which was designed to support diverse architectures and multiple languages, as well as other programs for the GNU operating system. The compiler now supports over 30 different architectures and 7 programming languages. Stallman is a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award, among many other honors.

Multinational Monitor: What is free software?

Richard Stallman: Free software is freedom that respects the user's freedom. More precisely, it means you have four specific freedoms: 0. The freedom to run the program, as you wish. 1. The freedom to study and change the program's source code to make it do what you wish. 2. The freedom to redistribute copies. 3. The freedom to publish a modified version.

These are the same freedoms that cooks enjoy in using recipes. Imagine the outrage of cooks if they were told that, from now on, if you share or change a recipe, you'll be called a "pirate" and put in prison for years. I felt the same outrage when forced to use proprietary software in the 1980s, and that is why I started the free software movement in 1984.

MM: How is free software different than open software?

Stallman: The term "open software" was used around 1990 to mean systems made up of components that function together using documented standard interfaces -- so that the user could choose from various options for each component. Most free software would qualify as "open software," but most "open software" of that epoch was proprietary (non-free).

Perhaps what you really wanted to ask about was the term "open source software." That term was promoted in 1998 by some who liked free software but disagreed with the ideals of the free software movement. They sought to make free software corporate-friendly by leaving out the ethical aspect and appealing to short-term practical values only.

They formulated their own different criteria for licenses, so a program can be open-source but not free, and vice versa. However, in practice, nearly all open-source software is free software, and nearly all free software is open-source. The real difference is in the philosophy, in the values. In the free software movement, we are aiming for freedom. They only say they want more powerful and reliable software.

MM: What are examples of free software? What is GNU/Linux?

Stallman: The GNU/Linux operating system is a complete software system, which consists of the GNU system plus Linux. You can install GNU/Linux on a PC (or various other kinds of computer) and do all the everyday jobs with it. We began the development of GNU in 1984 with the aim of developing a complete free system. By 1992 we had developed most of the system, but had not finished the kernel (one important component). At that time, Linus Torvalds developed a kernel called Linux and made it free software. Linux filled the remaining gap in GNU, and the combination, GNU/Linux, began to catch on. Nowadays many other programs have been added.

For other examples of free software packages, see the Free Software Directory .

MM: What kind of market shares have free software achieved?

Stallman: I have heard statements that tens of millions of computers are running GNU/Linux, but I don't try to keep track. The usage is hard to measure, since people are free to make copies and are not required to report to anyone when they do.

It is a grave mistake to apply the term "market share" to the question. That term regards people, the users, as mere territory that the competitors fight over. That is disrespectful towards them. That term implies a commercial rivalry, in which all sides aim only for their own success, and no ethical issues are at stake. If free software were nothing more than that, it would not be worth your attention.

Free software is a campaign for freedom. We are not merely providing an "alternative." We stand for real change, not just a change of masters. Our software allows you to be the master of your own computer, because we don't impose anyone else as master over you. To interpret this in terms of mere commercial rivalry is to miss the point completely.

MM: What is copyleft? What is the reason for using the copyleft device rather than simply placing software in the public domain?

Stallman: A program in the public domain is free software: people are free to run it, modify it, copy it, and publish modified versions. They can also make these modified versions non-free. The result is that the developers of the free version may have to compete with improved non-free versions of their own work. That competition is one-sided, because the non-free version can absorb all the improvements made in the free version, but the free version cannot get the improvements made in the non-free version. It puts the free version at a disadvantage.

Copyleft is a technique that I developed so as to avoid being at a disadvantage in this way. The technique uses copyright law to require that all modified versions be free just like the original. The main embodiment of copyleft is in the GNU General Public License, which is used by about three quarters of all free software packages. When a program is GPL-covered, you are free to publish a modified version, but your version must also be free, meaning that I can use your improvements just as you can use mine.

MM: Who programs free software?

Stallman: Aside from their being programmers, I can't tell you anything general about them. Anyone who wants to write a free program can do so. There is no central organization that they must join. We know there are on the order of a million contributors, but only a survey could find out more about them. Occasionally such surveys have been carried out; you would have to look for them on the ënet.

MM: What are the incentives for programmers to develop free software?

Stallman: The word "incentives" is misleading because it implies an artificial, extrinsic motivation. The question therefore presupposes that some extrinsic motivation is required. This is what the prevailing ideology encourages you to assume. In the case of software, it is ridiculous.

The most widespread motive for writing free software is to have fun. Programming is great fun. Building things is great fun, and millions of people build things as a hobby. The free software community has mobilized this widespread inclination into development of something that everyone can use. That's because we only have to build something once, and then everyone can use it.

There are other motivations as well. The determination to live in freedom is an important motive for many, but not all, free software developers. Other motivations I recall encountering include being admired, gaining a professional reputation as a capable programmer, gratitude to the community, and hatred for Microsoft. In some cases, money is also a motive. However, I doubt anyone writes free software for money alone, hating his job. The developers are surely all having fun.

MM: How do free software programmers make a living?

Stallman: They have jobs, I guess. Most free software developers are part-time volunteers, and don't need to be paid for this. Some of them have jobs as programmers, probably developing software for clients' specific uses (most software development is of this kind); some do other sorts of work.

There are also people who are paid to write free software full time. Some work on projects at universities or companies. Some have their own businesses, where they adapt certain free software to the needs of various clients successively.

MM: Why are IBM and other companies paying people to program free software? How do these companies hope to make a profit? Are they undermining or assisting the free software movement?

Stallman: I cannot tell you what they plan or want. What I can tell you is that these programs are a contribution to our community. We don't judge a program by who wrote it, we judge by whether it respects our freedom and whether it is useful.

MM: How has Microsoft responded to the growth of free software?

Stallman: Microsoft is actively trying to kill off free software, primarily by patenting many software ideas. Allowing patents on software ideas is a foolish policy which the U.S. stumbled into by accident, and since the late 1990s the U.S. government has been trying to foist this mistake onto the rest of the world.

Other methods Microsoft is using to attack free software include the imposition of secret file formats and protocols, which they hope we will be unable to figure out.

MM: Why?

Stallman: You can guess as well as I can. My guess is that they see us the way Rome saw Spartacus.

MM: Can Microsoft actions threaten the integrity of free software, by capturing its products and making them proprietary, by imposing proprietary standards on the Internet, or by other means?

Stallman: When free programs are copylefted, nobody can legally make non-free versions of them. But Microsoft has no need to do that. It can afford to pay programmers to write, from scratch, whatever it wants. It does not care much about compatibility with existing software, since it expects to impose its own incompatible protocols and formats as de facto standards.

MM: Is this happening?

Stallman: It is starting to happen, but we expect the main attack to be through patents -- and not only from Microsoft. A recent study found that Linux, the kernel of the GNU/Linux system, was covered by some 280 US patents. (More precisely, each of these patents covers an idea implemented somewhere in the hundreds of thousands of lines of code of Linux.) I would not be surprised if in the entire GNU/Linux system there were 10,000 ideas covered by patents, but nobody knows. Many of these patents are absurd, and might be overturned by a court, but even one that gets through and detonates could destroy a part of the system -- either a large part or a small part.

MM: Can free software potentially displace proprietary technologies altogether? Is this a worthwhile aim?

Stallman: The word "technologies" includes many things that could hardly be done by any software. You can't replace antibiotics or the fuel cell with free software, or with non-free software. So let's look at a narrower question that makes sense: can all software be free, and should it?

Non-free software tramples your freedom. It is distributed in a way designed to keep users divided and helpless: divided because they are forbidden to share, and helpless because none of them can change the software or even verify what it does. It's unethical and it should not exist.

No program is inherently non-free. It's clear that we can develop free software for people's needs, because we've already done the most important jobs. Our community's resources of volunteers are constantly increasing, and since governments have always paid for a large fraction of software development, they can just as easily fund free software henceforth. Twenty years ago, nobody could be sure that the social system of free software would work. Today it is simply a matter of whether we have the will to insist on freedom.

MM: Is free software really innovative, or is it really just mimicking proprietary programs?

Stallman: The free software movement started from zero 20 years ago, and non-free software had a big head start. So most of what we have done is replace non-free programs. However, there are innovative free software packages. Since I consider innovation less important than freedom, I don't try to keep track of innovations in free software. Nonetheless, just now I can think of Emacs, GDB, Perl, Python, TeX and Apache. I believe the World Wide Web was first implemented as free software.

MM: Can the free software approach be translated to other technologies? Are there unique features of software development that make it more amenable to the free approach?

Stallman: Software is a completely different issue from physical technology because it is mathematics that runs on a universal machine (the computer). The only equipment you need to develop software is a computer, and the same computer can copy it for you. For other fields of engineering, you'd need to build a factory. Designing the product would be far harder, too, which is why physical products are nowhere near as complex in their designs as today's software packages.

There are no copiers for physical objects, so the issue of freedom to copy does not arise. Perhaps some of the practices of free software development could be useful in physical engineering fields, but the ethical problem of non-free software has no analogue in them. Where it does exist is in other fields of useful practical writings, such as educational materials and reference works. They too should all be free.

Open and Collaborative Projects for Public Goods

Although software has in many ways led the way, in recent years there has been an explosion of open and collaborative projects to create public goods in a number of areas.

In July 2003, 69 economists, scientists and activists wrote to Dr. Kamil Idris, director general of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a UN body that is frequently viewed as a leading cheerleader for expanding monopolistic protections over information and knowledge. Signers of the letter included three Nobel laureates, Sir John Sulston (formerly of the Human Genome Project), Harold Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health and president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and economist Joseph Stiglitz, now a professor at Columbia University (and also Multinational Monitor editor Robert Weissman, signing in his capacity as co-director of Essential Action).

Pointing to the proliferation of open and collaborative projects, the signers argued that they "provide evidence that one can achieve a high level of innovation in some areas of the modern economy without intellectual property protection, and indeed excessive, unbalanced, or poorly designed intellectual property protections may be counter-productive." The letter requested WIPO hold a meeting on these new open collaborative development models.

After an initial indication that it would hold such a meeting, WIPO retreated, under pressure from the United States, which opposed the idea on the grounds that it was a veiled attack on Microsoft.

The letter to WIPO included an attachment describing examples of open collaborative projects to create public goods that could be discussed at a meeting. The attachment is presented here:

1. The IETF and Open Network Protocols

The Internet Engineering Task Force has worked for years to develop the public domain protocols that are essential for the operation of the Internet, an open network that has replaced a number of proprietary alternatives. ...

The IETF is currently struggling with problems setting open standards. When the IETF seeks to adopt a standard, there is uncertainty if anyone will later claim the standard infringes a patent. One suggestion to address this problem is to create a system whereby a standards organization could announce an intention to adopt a standard, and after a reasonable period for disclosure, prevent parties from later enforcing non-disclosed infringement claims.

2. Development of Free and Open Software

This movement is highly decentralized, competitive, entrepreneurial, heterogeneous, and devoted to the publishing of software that is freely distributed and open. It includes projects that embrace the GNU General Public License (GPL), which uses copyright licenses to require that modified versions also be free software, and projects such as FreeBSD, which use minimal licensing restrictions and permit anyone to make non-free modified versions, as well as projects such as MySQL, which release the code under the GNU GPL but sell licenses to make non-free modified versions, as well as many other approaches.

The new Apple operating system runs on top of FreeBSD, and big corporate players like Oracle and IBM run databases and server software on the mostly-GPL'd GNU/Linux operating system. Apache is the leading web page server software. ...

These various actors have a variety of values and objectives. Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation says, "the freedom to change and redistribute software is a human right." Others see this is as primarily an issue of how to most efficiently develop and distribute software. The proponents of open collaborative free software projects note that there are powerful reasons why software code should be open and freely copied. Not only is it efficient to copy existing code in new programs, but the transparency of the code allows a large community to find flaws and suggest improvements (Linus Torvalds' observation, popularized by Eric Raymond, that "with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow").

The free software movement is very important to the success and the future of the Internet, and it is also quite important in countering Microsoft's massive monopoly power, particularly given the number of commercial competitors to Microsoft that have disappeared. In recent years, many governments have began to embrace open collaborative free software projects. Free software developers are concerned about a number of policies that WIPO is involved in, including whether to allow patents on computational ideas, the future development of digital rights management schemes, and the enforceability of "shrink wrapped" or click-on contracts that contain anticompetitive provisions.

3. The World Wide Web

If measured by the rate at which it has transformed the world, the World Wide Web is the most important publishing success ever. The web was built on public domain protocols, and on documents that were, from the beginning, transparent and open at the level of source code. Long before anyone even knew how copyright would apply to the Internet, millions of documents were being created for free distribution on the Internet. Governments are now routinely publishing documents and data on the web so it can be freely available, as do multilateral institutions like WIPO.

The entire future of the Web will depend upon the extent to which new digital copyright regimes permit such practices as hypertext linking, the use of materials in search engines such as Google, and liberal views toward fair use.

4. The Human Genome Project

In an April 14, 2003 statement, the heads of state for the France, the United States, the UK, Germany, Japan and China issued a statement, which noted that: "Scientists from six countries have completed the essential sequence of three billion base pairs of DNA of the human genome, the molecular instruction book of human life. ... This information is now freely available to the world without constraints via public databases on the World Wide Web."

If Presidents Jacques Chirac and George Bush, Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Junichiro Koizumi, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Premier Wen Jiabao can collaborate on a statement to herald efforts to create a public domain database, free from intellectual property claims, it is time for the World Intellectual Property Organization to better appreciate why these governments did not want the Human Genome patented.

5. The SNP Consortium

A different example of a project to create a public domain database involves single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), which are thought to have great significance in biomedical research. In 1999, the SNP Consortium was organized as a non-profit foundation to provide public data on SNPs. The SNP Consortium is composed of the Wellcome Trust and 11 pharmaceutical and technological companies including Amersham Biosciences, AstraZeneca, Aventis, Bayer, Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, Hoffmann-LaRoche, GSK, IBM, Motorola, Novartis, Pfizer and Searle. The work was performed by the Stanford Human Genome Center, Washington University School of Medicine (St. Louis), the Sanger Centre and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. The mission of the SNP consortium was to develop up to 300,000 SNPs distributed evenly throughout the human genome and to make the information related to these SNPs available to the public without intellectual property restrictions. By 2001, it had exceeded expectations, and more than 1.5 million SNPs were discovered and made available to researchers worldwide. ...

6. Open Academic and Scientific Journals

The development of the Internet and the World Wide Web has fueled interest in new models for publishing academic and scientific journals. The prices for traditional journals have been sharply rising for years, worsening the gap between those who can afford access to information and those who cannot. In the past several years, there has been a proliferation of projects to create open academic and scientific journals. The Public Library of Science was founded by Nobel Prize winner Dr. Harold Varmus and fellow researchers Patrick Brown and Michael Eisen. The Free Online Scholarship (FOS) movement, the creation of the widely read (for profit) BioMed Central to provide "immediate free access to peer-reviewed biomedical research," the Budapest Open Access Initiative (which has been endorsed by 210 organizations), and other similar projects seek to promote new business models for publishing that allow academic and scientific information to be more widely available to the research community. [There are many o]ther efforts to provide reduced price or free access to researchers in developing countries. ...

Recently U.S. Congressman Martin Sabo introduced legislation to require all U.S. funded research to enter the public domain, and others are calling for international cooperation to similarly enhance the scientific commons.

7. Global Positioning System (GPS)

This is not an example of collaborative development model, but it does illustrate the benefits of providing a free information good, in terms of stimulating the development of an entire generation of new applications. If lighthouses are considered a textbook example of a public good, the modern equivalent might be the Global Positioning System (GPS), which provides the entire world highly accurate positioning and timing data via satellites. GPS signals are used for air, road, rail and marine navigation, precision agriculture and mining, oil exploration, environmental research and management, telecommunications, electronic data transfer, construction, recreation and emergency response. There are an estimated 4 million GPS users worldwide. The services are offered without charge. Following the Korean Airline disaster,

U.S. President Ronald Reagan offered GPS free to promote increased safety for civil aviation, and more recently U.S. President Bill Clinton eliminated the intentional degrading of the system for civilian use.

NASA reports that "many years ago we evaluated charging for the civil signal. The more we looked at it, the more convinced we became that by providing the signal free of direct user fees we would encourage technological development and industrial growth. The benefits from that, the new jobs created, and the increased safety and efficiency for services more than outweighed the money we would get from charging -- especially when you consider the additional bureaucracy that would be needed to manage cost recovery. We think that judgment has proven valid, as the world-wide market for GPS applications and services now exceeds $8 billion annually."


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