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'Free software is about freedom, not cost'

June 11, 2007 12:47 IST
"Software patents are a killer for the economy in the end". It's natural to be surprised at this statement when most major global and Indian information technology firms -- right from IBM, Microsoft, Sun to Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys and Wipro -- speak of their patents and innovation in the same breath.

But, then, it's the 34-year-old Georg C F Greve that you're speaking to -- President of the Free Software Foundation, Europe -- whose sole mission is to make a strong case for "free software" and explain why 'software patents' should be anathema to society.

On his first trip to India, Greve surely has an idea of what he's speaking about. He has a classic scientific background as 'Diplom' Physicist and software development was part of his life since he was 12 years old. He says "there's no scientific study in the world to show that patents increase innovation. It's simply a way of locking the competition out".

He's makes a clear distinction between copyrights and patents. "Copyright refers to a concrete implementation, the concrete program, and the line of code. Whereas a patent always refers to an idea, to the principle, to the vague idea behind the program, and any program incorporates thousands, hundreds of thousands of such ideas sometimes,
he explains.

"There is no way anyone can get away from this truth. The only real issue for you is when you violate them (the software patents), will you be prosecuted, or are you big enough to resist this? As it turns out, only very few, very large players are big enough to resist this," he adds.

Patents on software are among the worst threats to knowledge-based industries, by restricting software development: they make computers less secure, less reliable and prevent competition on a basic level, he
opines.

Lack of competition and uncalculable legal risks raise the cost of ICT and cost jobs wherever the economy depends upon them. The most essential discoveries in the field of ICT were successful because they were not
patented, for instance the invention of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee. If software patents are enacted, we will not have the next World Wide Web.

He's equally animated when talking about free software and clarifies that free software is not about price but about "software that gives you freedom of unlimited use for any use; to study; to modify and to distribute".

So, when you think of free software, think of 'software libero', Greve adds. English, he notes, seems to be the only language in which such a strong ambiguity exists between freedom and price.

That's why When the European Commission started dealing with Free Software on a regular basis, they sought to avoid the ambiguity of the English word "Free Software" and the misunderstandings of "Open Source" alike, which led to the adoption of a third term which has popped up occasionally since around 1992: "Libre Software."

He also underscores the fact that the $12 billion Internet major, Google, is the largest promoter of free software and is convinced that Free Software is the only way for governments to have control over their IT infrastruture and policy.

Greve, however, is disappointed that the "One Laptop Per Child" (Nicholas Negroponte's project for theĀ  underprivileged) "is now working to update the hardware to fit the needs of Microsoft Windows". He fears this will raise the price of the laptop and deal a blow to the "free software" movement.
Leslie D' Monte in Mumbai
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