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19 October 2010, 10:16

Open standards dispute flares up again at the EU level

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FSFE Logo The Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) has accused the Business Software Alliance (BSA) of hampering innovation with its call for patented innovations to be included in open standards. As the FSFE writes in an open letterPDF to the European Commission, the BSA, whose members include Apple, HP, IBM, Microsoft, SAP and Siemens, bases its position on an "insufficient understanding" of the role and function of standards. Specifically, the FSFE says that imposing a zero­ royalty licensing condition on the inclusion of patented technologies does not actually prevent their inclusion in open standards. Rather a contributor of such technologies is simply required to forego imposing running royalties on implementations. The FSFE also points out that the world's most important technology platform, the internet, belies the BSA's claim that free specifications hamper innovation.

The dispute once again concerns a revision of the European Interoperability Framework (EIF), an EU framework to ensure interoperability in e-government services. The debate has already been going on for a year and was supposed to be settled this month. The wording in some of the early proposals unsettled groups supporting open source, who complained that the revised version would put patented and proprietary solutions at the same tier of openness. As a result, they charged, public officials would not nearly be able to use open software as freely.

In return, the BSA says the proposal in dispute does not go far enough. In a letterPDF to the Commission published by the FSFE at the beginning of October, the BSA expressly calls for techniques for open standards licensed under "FRAND" (fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory) terms to be included in the EIF. Users then usually have to pay money to use a standard or otherwise provide services, neither of which is compatible with the principles of open software. The BSA points out that specifications like Wi-Fi, GSM and MPEG have already been successfully licensed in such a manner and argues that the approach is in line with the EU's protection of intellectual property rights. The BSA concludes that any other approach would set a bad example for countries like China because the European Commission would undermine its ability to defend intellectual property in such countries.

The FSFE counters that the examples chosen by the BSA are "irrelevant" (with the exception of MPEG for software) and attempt to make a false distinction between "commercially" protected developments and unprotected software made by hobby programmers. The FSFE reminds everyone that a lot of unpatented technologies developed by firms are used in globally implemented standards, such as HTML5, and continue to earn money for their makers. The FSFE argues that FRAND generally discriminates against all business models based on open software and is incompatible with most open source licenses, such as GNU GPL, the Mozilla Public License and the Apache Public License.

The FSFE says that the BSA is not even speaking on behalf of all of its members in this case and points out that there is no connection between a preference for open standards and negotiations with China. Instead, the Foundation argues that specifications not protected by patents promote standards and interoperability. Indeed, the difficulties that public officials have had in switching to free software, such as in the Swiss town of Solothurn, "illustrate how vendor lock-in caused by patent-encumbered software standards ties users to suboptimal solutions, at great cost to taxpayers."

A document containing proposed revisions for Brussels' open source strategy was published at Wikileaks and recently discussed in a number of forums; the content shows how much pressure lobbies are exerting against open source at the EU level. The Association for Competitive Technology (ACT), whose head Jonathan Zuck has been calling for software patents for years in Europe, and CompTIA have apparently been working to considerably weaken the EU's plans with proposals for specific wordings. For instance, one passage would stipulate that the growth of open source software should not be especially fostered. Furthermore, lobbyists have attempted to put the focus on "mixed solutions with open and proprietary code" and have FRAND licenses declared compatible with open software.

(Stefan Krempl)

(Stefan Krempl / crve)

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