A Trip Down (Computer) Memory Lane

The world of free software seems constantly fresh and exciting, so it always comes as a shock - to me, at least - to remember that it has been around for more than 30 years now. Richard Stallman announced the GNU project back in 1983, but this month, there's another important anniversary: the publication of the GNU Manifesto.

In some ways this is even more important than the actual software that first Stallman, and then the GNU team, started writing. That's because ultimately software gets re-written and superseded. But the ideas that Stallman first announced in the Manifesto are timeless and universal. The whole thing is a classic, and well-worth reading, but I think the following section lies at its heart:

Why I Must Write GNU

I consider that the Golden Rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it. Software sellers want to divide the users and conquer them, making each user agree not to share with others. I refuse to break solidarity with other users in this way. I cannot in good conscience sign a nondisclosure agreement or a software license agreement. For years I worked within the [MIT] Artificial Intelligence Lab to resist such tendencies and other inhospitalities, but eventually they had gone too far: I could not remain in an institution where such things are done for me against my will.

So that I can continue to use computers without dishonor, I have decided to put together a sufficient body of free software so that I will be able to get along without any software that is not free. I have resigned from the AI Lab to deny MIT any legal excuse to prevent me from giving GNU away.

Stallman refers to problems at MIT's AI Lab that eventually led him to leave that organisation, and start the GNU project. At the root of those issues was a company called Symbolics, which was creating a special kind of LISP-based computer - something I covered in great detail in my history of free software and open source, "Rebel Code". There's a nice parallelism that just at the time that Stallman published his GNU Manifesto, Symbolics was obtaining the domain name symbolics.com. Nothing special about that, you might think - until you discover it was actually the very first dotcom domain to be granted:

This Sunday, March 15, 2015, will mark 30 years since the first .COM domain name -- Symbolics.com -- was registered, and the Internet and world as we know it changed forever.

Well, that's certainly true. The appearance of the first .com domain signalled an important moment in the Internet's commercialisation - precisely the issue that Stallman found so troubling in the world of software. In more recent years, another kind of commercialisation has appeared that is particularly worrisome for the free software world: software patent trolls. It is dangerous, because free software projects typically have few resources, and certainly insufficient to fight long and costly legal battles against speculative attacks by trolls.

Although software patent trolls like to claim that they are promoting innovation by acting as facilitators for the transfer of new technology from inventors to implementors, recent research has shown that argument has no basis in fact. Instead, they are simply parasitical, imposing a tax on companies that actually produce things, simply because they have managed to gain a state-enforced monopoly on an idea, often trivial in itself.

That's why Microsoft's declaration in 2007 that it would be seeking patent royalties from free software was a tacit admission that it could no longer compete on the basis of the quality of its products, but would henceforth resort to legal attacks. As I described last year, when mainstream open source projects refused to roll over, Microsoft moved on to companies that used Android. Microsoft may have derived some useful licensing revenues from those that decided it was easier to pay up than fight - we don't really know, since the agreements are secret. But in another important court - that of public opinion - these actions have done nothing to win Microsoft users for its Windows phones, which continue to languish in the smartphone league tables with risibly-small market share. And yet it seems that Microsoft is still trying to hobble Android by imposing its patent tax on companies that use it:

Microsoft may be taking some steps to make nice with the Android world, but the company is still willing to pick fights when its royalty payments are at stake. The Windows maker has sued Kyocera in the US over claims that Android phones like the Brigadier and Hydro series violate seven patents on features like location tracking and messaging.

And in case you were thinking this is just some one-off, the following blog post from Intellectual Asset Management suggests this might be part of a much larger move back into patent trolldom:

the company’s main corporate entity – Microsoft Corporation – assigned 35,997 US patent assets last year. Of those, 28,223 were transferred to Microsoft Technology Licensing LLC – the entity that sued Kyocera for patent infringement in a Seattle federal court last month and signed a broad cross-licensing deal with Fuji Xerox yesterday. This may indicate that Microsoft has effectively spun out its patent monetisation operations into a subsidiary.

Sadly, this isn't the only example of Microsoft's regression. Remember three years ago there was a big scare about Microsoft's UEFI Secure Boot technology in Windows 8, and how it seemed to be stopping Linux from booting on ARM hardware? Well, it looks like the UEFI threat is back:

we can envisage OEMs building machines that will offer no easy way to boot self-built operating systems, or indeed, any operating system that doesn't have appropriate digital signatures. This doesn't cut out Linux entirely—there have been some collaborations to provide Linux boot software with the "right" set of signatures, and these should continue to work—but it will make it a lot less easy.

Finally - and almost unbelievably - we have the following blast from the past:

Nearly 12 years after it was filed, a lawsuit against IBM Corp. that riled the open-source computer code community is back on the federal court docket in Utah.

The nearly defunct Utah company SCO Group Inc. and IBM filed a joint report to the U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City saying that legal issues remain in the case, which was initiated in 2003 with SCO claiming damages of $5 billion against the technology giant, based in Armonk, N.Y.

That likely means that U.S. District Judge David Nuffer, who now presides over the dispute, will start moving the lawsuit — largely dormant for about four years while a related suit against Novell Inc. was adjudicated — ahead.

Yes, the SCO zombie is back...

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