"Saint" Stallman urges Europeans to fight patent legislation

Civil liberties are under attack in Europe in the form of software legislation and cyber-crime codes, open source software guru Richard Stallman warned this weekend.

Stallman called on like-minded Europeans to organize themselves to fight the new legislation, speaking at a two-day conference hosted by the Flemish Free University of Brussels.

"It is going to be necessary to organize yourselves politically to change government policy," he told a packed auditorium of students and Linux devotees Saturday.

The European Commission, the European Union's executive body, is the main culprit in eroding civil liberties, he said. "The part of the Commission in charge of deciding how to shape European patenting laws for the software industry isn't the part that's in charge of software development," he said. "If it isn't stopped it will push the EU to adopt a software patent directive."

Stallman advised his audience to educate European parliamentarians who, he said "don't understand the issue at all." He also recommended aiming the anti-software patenting campaign at national governments.

The European Parliament and national government ministers would have to approve any Europe-wide legislation on software patenting. Stallman said one encouraging sign is that German and French governments appear to be set against such legislation. "There is still hope," he said.

"Big U.S. corporations and the U.S. government -- their servant -- are pushing hard for Europe to accept software patents," Stallman said. "You have to work together to fight this."

However, even if the pressure from the US is not successful, European civil liberties could still be jeopardized by the proposed Hague Treaty, an international doctrine being drafted by the EU and countries including the U.S. The Hague Treaty would allow companies in one country with software patents to defend those patents in another country that doesn't have such laws. "This could be very dangerous for European software developers," Stallman said.

The cyber-crime initiative launched last month by the Commission poses specific threats to civil liberties, he said. "Some software reverse engineering would be prohibited under this code," Stallman said. "There are other dangers to civil liberties in this code too," he added. [See "EU unveils plan to fight cybercrime,"Jan. 30.) The Commission's paper on cyber-crime proposes a number of legislative and non-legislative actions. Legislative proposals include harmonizing member states' laws. In the short term, those relating to child pornography offenses and incitement to racism will be targeted, and in the longer term the commission will bring forward proposals to harmonize criminal law on high-tech crime, including hacking and denial of service attacks.

Stallman's 75 minute-long speech captivated the 500-strong audience. It mostly laid out his well-known views on why patents are inappropriate to software. Software design, he said, is fundamentally different from tangible physical design, which he agreed should be patentable.

First, there are no revolutionary leaps forward in software design, but incremental steps forward, building on previous ideas.

Second, software designers don't have to deal with the problems faced by working with matter. "Matter is perverse," Stallman said. "Engineers dealing with matter face a whole level of difficulty that we don't face."

Third, Stallman pointed out that unlike designers of physical things "software designers don't need a factory to produce their ideas. "We just press 'copy'," he said.

The message was deadly serious, but the delivery was true to Stallman form: he kicked off his sneakers at the start and conducted the session in blue socks and brown slacks with a sopranino recorder (a flute-like musical instrument) sticking out of his right pocket and a crinkled burgundy polo shirt that stretched over his round belly. His long, curly hair swayed to and fro as he gesticulated generously with his arms to make his point.

He ended the speech on a humorous note by introducing St IGNUcius, his reverend alter ego. He reached for a plastic supermarket bag on the desk beside him and produced a black embroidered poncho and an old computer disc platter. He slipped the poncho over his head and attached the platter to the crown of his head, halo-like, and recited: "There is no system but GNU, and Linux is one of its kernels. Sainthood in the Church of Emacs requires living a life of purity -- but in the Church of Emacs, this does not require celibacy. Being holy in our church means installing a wholly free operating system and not putting any non-free software on your computer. Join the Church of Emacs, and you too can be a saint!"

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