Why I think we won the battle against software patents

After many years talking about the damages to innovation created by patents on software, I believe that the we can consider the battle won: the free software/open source movement should focus its attention on other battles.  While I agree with Florian Mueller that the Europeans are still pestered by patents on software, I believe that our campaign was to mainly raise wider awareness.

During the long march to reject the directive on ‘computer implemented inventions’ we put the issue of software patents in front of millions of Europeans, thousands of small businesses and hundreds of MEPs. We convinced the majority of  MEPs to reject, for the first time ever, a Directive approved by the Council. We started a debate about the threats to innovation posed by patents and we made sure the business community knew about the risks to their activity. The issues of patents on software and math are now visible to all those affected in the business community: entrepreneurs, small-and medium-size businesses and big business.

The business community at large is the ultimate victim of software patents. With trolls constantly at work, all companies face potential damage. Companies, small and big, are now aware of the problem and the debate about how to fix it is now a fire that burns on its own. Academics publish a lot more papers and research projects demonstrating that the current patent system is broken and dysfunctional and may be harming economic development of the US.

Looking at it strictly from the perspective of the free software movement: we won! We did our job, software patents are now a mainstream issue, our arguments are being pushed forward by people with vast resources, much more than the FSF or OSI can put together. I believe that Google, HTC, Apple, Microsoft etc. are the main victims of this stupid system. Some argue that the whole US and European commercial power is being harmed in the competition with China. Let them finish the fight: they have all reasons to want to change the system.  We as the free software movement can continue provide expertise when needed, follow the progress of the issue.

We need to liberate resources and energy for other fights that are still not mainstream: online privacy, DRM and locked devices are some that come to mind.

I believe that the victory in the European Parliament was and still is a full clear victory.  As Jack Welch teaches: celebrating a victory is always a good thing, even a small one.

Florian’s comment on victory

Florian Mueller left a comment on my previous post about the software patents campaign. I promised to reply soon and I will, but meanwhile I think it’s worth reading, if you haven’t already:

I was quite actively involved in the fight against that proposed EU directive, and I was in Strasbourg on the day of that memorable vote. It was a victory for us, but it was merely a defensive victory. We did not bring about legislation in favor of our position — we just prevented what I believe would have exacerbated the situation quickly at the time.

Now, almost six years later, I no longer believe we can claim (as you do at the end of your post) that “we won”. The European Patent Office grants more software patents than ever; national high courts of major EU member states uphold software patents; and software patent holders enforce their rights aggressively in Europe, such as Apple (please take a look at the patents listed on page 33 of this document).

So while it was appropriate in 2005 to call this a victory, I don’t think it’s still the right thing to say in light of where things stand today. Frankly, if the directive in the form originally proposed by the European Commission had been promulgated, there would just be a greater degree of clarity and Europe-wide harmonization about how it’s applied, but software patents are a part of today’s European reality regardless of what we achieved back then.

The one respect in which that victory still matters is that it strengthened EU democracy. It was the first time in EU history (and I believe it’s still the only one) that the European Parliament rejected a legislative proposal by the Council without going into conciliation. This strengthens Parliament’s role in negotiations and has probably affected many legislative processes ever since.

But on the software patent front, it doesn’t matter too much anymore. Think of soccer — a sport in which underdogs sometimes achieve spectacular results. If an underdog manages to hold a much stronger opponent to a goalless draw, that’s remarkable and, at the time it happens, it’s a reason to celebrate. But in order to win one has to be capable of scoring goals (not only able to prevent them). Our movement never ever scored a goal in an offensive sense. We never went on the attack and said ‘this is the kind of legislation we want to do away with software patents’ and got such a proposal passed into law.

A team that never scores a goal may achieve a goal in soccer because the match will be over after 90 or 120 minutes plus stoppage time. In politics, there is no 90 or 120 minute limit. Things go on and on and on. And if you never score a goal for so many years — almost six years now in this context –, your opponent will at some point score and then you’ve lost.

It’s a nice romantic idea that millions of people can win over millions of euros. But in a matter of economic policy making, it’s nothing more than a dream, and in this case it’s a dream that didn’t truly materialize.

Ultimately, if politicians have to decide on how to regulate a commercial matter, they will listen to business. I don’t know of any large corporation that opposes software patents (even Google is in favor of its own software patents). I know some small and medium-sized companies who are against them, but they never took serious action.

Politicians won’t listen to organizations like the FSF(E) and FFII (or whatever little is left of the FFII by now…) to the extent that they would abolish an intellectual property rights regime that’s strong, resilient, and deeply entrenched. That would only happen with strong business support. The absence of such support indicates that most companies — unlike idealists — simply look at software patents as a fact of life, as a cost of doing business. Against that mentality, you and the organizations you mention stand no chance — absolutely no realistic chance ever — to prevail, and that’s why I for my part dropped out of this almost 4 1/2 years ago and now try to focus on how to deal with the fact of life that we all have to live with.

Florian blogs regularly on FOSS Patents about software patents in Europe.

Join a community, land a great job

Joining a community not only makes you feel better but can land you a great job. Janet Swisher has been contributing to the online community FLOSS Manuals writing documentation for free/libre software. In a message to the community she wrote:

I hadn’t been looking for a new job, but I was contacted by someone at Mozilla about a position they had open. […]
I think it’s fair to say that being involved in FLOSS Manuals helped me get a job at Mozilla.

I’ve seen this happening often at Funambol where many of the people active in the community have been hired. Whether you’re actively looking for a job or not, its a good investment for your future to make your passion visible.

A Techie Tech Writer Blog » First week at Mozilla.

How To Mix Agile And Software Developed By A Community

Back from Italian Agile Day where Stefano Fornari of Funambol with Marco Abis of Sourcesense animated a debate about mixing Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) and Agile development methods. I used to think that there was no issue because, after all, free software is a way to release software and it’s not a development method like many still think. Strictly speaking, what makes software free and open source is its license, not how it’s developed. But a lot of FLOSS is indeed developed in similar ways, with distributed teams, volunteer based contributions, merithocracy based leadership and so on. Some of these traits make FLOSS and Agile difficult to mix.

At Funambol we love Agile, me included, and we love to try new things so we proposed an experiment mixing Agile methods with community based development into a new Funambol Code Sniper program. The slideshow below summarizes the basis of this experiment based on the assumption that the community is the Product Owner of the new software.  The community will have to define the user stories and also to define when they’re DONE.

There are still a few grey areas, the biggest being how to distribute rewarding to contributors. I think they should be proportionate to the efforts put into the project. Even if it is possible to evaluate code contributions proportionally to story points (or hours/weeks), code is only a part of software development. Bug reporting, quality assurance, feedback and even writing user stories is important as well: how to evaluate these other kind of contributions? What do you think?

Don’t call it Scrum

Gianugo Rabellino has given me more food for thoughts about my research on Free/Libre Open Source software development and Agile/Scrum methods. His latest post contains a sentence that summarizes my key finding so far:

At the end of the day, this means that the customer is there – it just happens to coincide with the community as a whole.

Talking with my Funambol colleagues, the pragmatic agilists, and looking at Ross Gardler presentation below, I have the confirmation that the Pentaho guys are on the right track with Open Scrum. I also learned that it’s better not to use the word Scrum if it’s not The Scrum you’re talking about. With that in mind, I’m now focusing on best practices for communication between developers distributed around the world (more in latest posts).

View more presentations from Ross Gardler.

SCRUM and volunteer developers

SCRUM development process
SCRUM development process

Funambol engineering team uses the SCRUM methodology to develop software. It’s a very interesting method that seems highly compatible with free/libre open source software development habits. It mandates fast release cycles (like the release early/release often mantra), teams that can self-organize. SCRUM also mandates fixed time (2 to 6 weeks) to complete a development cycle (called iteration or sprint). This last part doesn’t seem to be very compatible with contributions by volunteers.

I’ve been looking for other free software projects that use SCRUM internally to understand how they involve external contributors, volunteers, in strictly time constrained release cycles. Pentaho wiki has a very interesting paper on the topic, but I still don’t understand if they have established a process to assign user stories to volunteer contributors.

I wonder if some have tried and failed or nobody has ever tried this at all.

Ozzie talks about FLOSS and FLOSS advocates talk back

Lots of talking about Microsoft lately.’  As I expected, Ray Ozzie’s public appearances are increasing with declarations of love for the magic word interoperability and with a new, more open, attitude.’  I believe it’s true that “Microsoft fundamentally, as a whole, has changed dramatically as a result of open source,” as Ozzie said.

Roberto wrote a long post about Microsoft Open Source strategy. Having talked to him long enough, I know he sees the big potential for new Open Source firms to prosper on Microsoft ecosystem.’  I suspect he is right, given the fact that the *nix competitors have lost 15 years of evolution fighting each other instead of building a common (superior) platform. Only with GNU/Linux such common platform arrived, but it probably came a day late and a dollar short.

Contrary to Roberto, I think that Microsoft change is not sufficient yet for Free Software advocates like me to merrily lift the precautions. I can still hear Ballmer shouting threats and see him trying to twist the arms of the EU Commission (as Carlo remembers very well). I’m not confident yet that these moves represent a new strategy and they’re not merely tactics to penetrate the FLOSS market and break it from the inside (patent lawsuit?).’  If I were a developer I wouldn’t trust any promise not to sue by Microsoft, even if that promise uses the same (murky) words of IBM’s promises. I don’t care: Microsoft track records on Free Software is bad, bad, bad and worse. Microsoft must do better than IBM, it must be perfect (they can, if they want to).

Wengo stopped developing wengophone

Some disappointing news today: Wengo stopped developing Wengophone, the VoIP SIP and XMPP/Jabber multiplatform client.’ ’  They announced it in the developer’s mailing list.

Update: the’ development of OpenWengo software has been taken over’ by an experienced Wengo programmer.

I wonder why Google isn’t contributing its gtalk code to free software projects like Kopete, Gaim or Adium: they use an open standard (XMPP) and they should have all interests to increase their user base.’  My quest for a free software alternative to Skype continues.

Nokia goes for Trolltech

Now, this is surprising: Nokia acquired Trolltech, makers of toolkit QT, GTK’s competitor. What surprises me is that Nokia is using GTK on its tablet products (the 770, N800 and N810). So now Nokia has a stake in many platforms: its own flavour of Symbian for its cell phones, GTK/Gnome on the internet tablets and now QT… for what? It’s hard to guess. Is Nokia interested in QTopia, the platform used in embedded devices, including the dead sold out Trolltech Greenphone?

A fresh start with my new job at Funambol

I haven’t been updating the blog too much in the past week and the reason is that I have a new job as community manager at Funambol. The company develops the free/libre software Funambol application server (formerly known as Sync4j). The server allows mobile backup and PIM synchronization to contacts, calendars, tasks, notes and other data, push email (blackberry-like), mobile device management to manage cell phones remotely.’  Funambol also has clients for most cell phones available on the market.

The software allows also extensions, as plug-ins and connectors. One of my duties will be to help external developers to contribute plug-ins like the iPhone, Yahoo and Gmail connectors.

The office is in Pavia, which is 45 minutes away from my home in Milano. The company is located in Redwood, California, giving the international touch I like in this creative Italian venture.

I am already getting used to the new rhythm and in the next days I’ll start posting more regularly.