Lennart's Freedom Page

Why do we need a freedom page? Well, in order to maintain our freedom, we have to defend it. Back in the good old days of the Cold War, the Russians were our biggest enemies and of course the Free Western World had to defend themselves against them. Now that the Russians have no significant fighting power (apart from the nuclear arsenal that's more or less available to all criminals) and even China has become a business partner rather than an enemy, our own Governments have started to become the biggest enemies of our freedom.

At least for the moment we have International Terrorism as a real enemy to fight against.

What the governments don't take away, the criminals and the big multinationals will take! What's bad about the big multinationals is not that they are big or multinational, not even that they are rich and powerful, not even that they tend to create monopolies, the bad thing is that they buy laws that restrict the freedom of individual people and small businesses. Think about extended copyrights and gene patenting. Read The Rogue SSSCA to see another attack on our freedom that is in store.

Software Patents

One particularly bad development is software patents. Though they are particularly a problem in the USA, they could affect the rest of the world just as badly in the future. Once it was explicitly stated that mental steps and mathematics were not patentable, but the line has been moved dramatically since the 1970s. From patenting computer programs that controlled chemical processes, the lawyers went to patenting some very trivial mathematical operations that a computer might perform on data in memory. The same kind of double-think lead to patents on pieces of DNA that people like you and me have had in their cells for thousands of centuries.

British Telecom managed to get a US patent on the concept of hyperlinking. Fortunately this patent turned out to be invalid, but similarly trivial patents on Internet-related practices tend to emerge frequently enough to keep worrying.

One field of computer science that is badly plagued by software patents is the field of lossless data compression. The program gzip had become a de facto standard, mostly because it was (believed to be) free of patents, not only because its technical merits. More effort has been invested in patent search than in the technical development of gzip. There are compression methods that are either faster or pack better, but the interesting ones have been patented. Development of a successor of gzip was seriously hindered by possible patent problems, but bzip2 managed to make it through the patent minefield and it does compress better than gzip. Apparently somebody forgot to patent Burrows Wheeler Transform based compression. But it's still possible that somebody digs up an old patent more than ten years after the fact, as seems to have happened with JPEG.

There is a very bad aspect of software patents, namely self-censorship. An essential aspect of patents was that descriptions of the invention were freely published, hence the name patent. In exchange for that, the law prohibited manufacturing of the patented invention. For software, manufacturing can hardly be distinguished from writing and copying documents. That alone should dismiss software as an allowable subject matter for patents, but lawyers are a stubborn breed with twisted minds. So in fear of patent infringement, American people are declining to distribute source code of programs that contain or might contain patented algorithms.

In Europe they also want this software patent shit! Look at The FFII page. They also want to patent things like business procedures. That's good for some lawyers. See the story about Greed Unlimited, something that could be another consequence of broad patentability. On September 24 2003, the European Parliament voted for clear limits on software patents, by accepting many amendments to the original proposed directive. Unfortunately, the European Council has ignored the will of the Parliament and is prepared to make the original proposal into law. A few amendments that the Parliament added and would be deleted:

In order to guarantee access to some once-popular compression programs, I hereby publish the source code of the Unix compress program that uses the patented LZW algorithm. Download ncompress4.2 here. This is giflib 3.0, a GIF library that does real LZW compression. Fortunately the LZW patent has expired in the USA and the rest of the world. Here is the JPEG library source, that Forgent suddenly claims a patent on. Then there is the JBIG Kit software to convert fax images in the JBIG format, which also contains patented algorithms. BTW I'm not breaking any law by posting source code, even if it is of patented algorithms, at least not yet. If the European Council gets its way, programs and data structures could be claimed as patented inventions. This would open the door to real censorship.


Some interesting links:

You know the DMCA is unconstitutional in the USA. As the NRA states: nobody has the right to take away our guns, its our Constitution Right (R). The same goes for our MacroVision Killer(R) and SCMS Copybit Killer(R) boxes as well as the DeCSS source code. Those are essential to exercise First Amendment Rights(R) and publishing designs and source code is itself a First Amendment Right&trademark;.

As if all this is not enough, I wrote this little story: "The day they marched to Washington DC", and I'm not a great fiction writer and certainly not in English.