This weekend marks the 300th anniversary of the Statute of Anne, widely considered to be the foundation of modern copyright law. The Statute, formally titled “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning,” is often praised for placing intellectual property rights in the hands of individual authors and ushering in the era of public interest copyright law. In reality, however, the law’s most lasting legacy has been the misguided proposition that “the Encouragement of Learned Men to Compose and Write useful Books” cannot be accomplished without copyright: a system which restricts the flow and use of information, chills collaboration, and presupposes that property rights are necessary to encourage innovation.
Last week, to the surprise of patent lawyers and the biotechnology industry, advocates for technological freedom won an enormous victory against socially harmful distortions of patent law. The Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York held invalid patents owned by Myriad Genetics on diagnostic testing for genetic susceptibility to the most common hereditary forms of breast and ovarian cancer. By “patenting” the right to determine whether the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are present in the relevant mutated form in a women’s genome, Myriad Genetics has been able to exclude all other laboratories from conducting the test. Patients and their insurers have paid much more, and women and their families have waited crucial weeks longer than necessary for information relevant to treatment and potentially affecting survival.
A (belated) blog post about the future of free software; making the movement more inclusive; and the Libre Planet Conference in Boston on May 19-21.
Earlier this week, the Office of Foreign Assets Control announced the relaxation of rules prohibiting export of software to Iran and Sudan. The new exemptions build on a recent easing of some rules governing exporting telecommunications technology to Cuba. These moves are surely an attempt to capitalize on the Iranian election demonstrations last summer that some called the “Twitter Revolution”. They are also a sign that the Obama Administration is carrying out its plans to make internet freedom a pillar of US diplomacy.
I hope the revised OFAC rules are the beginning of a broad and nuanced re-examination of US technology export policy. They are certainly good news for Free Software developers who are currently prohibited from distributing their software in embargoed countries.
Public Safety is not a matter of Private Concern
In a recent article, Slate’s Farhad Manjoo attempts to play down fears of faulty software in car braking systems as a potential cause of traffic accidents. Citing numerous studies which conclude that “the overwhelming reason we get in crashes is driver error,” Manjoo reasons that “the less driving people do, the fewer people will die on the roads.”
While it may certainly be true that most crashes occur because of intoxication, distraction, or driver fatigue, and that computer controlled cars may decrease driver error, Manjoo doesn’t seem to see the obvious implication of his own assumptions – “opaque” and “inherently buggy” software which could endanger public safety should be subject to review.
New York Times reporters John Markoff and Ashlee Vance correctly pointed out that “nations, private corporations, and even bands of rogue programmers are capable of covertly tunneling into information systems,” by exploiting bugs in a program’s source code in their January 20th story, “Fearing Hackers Who Leave no Trace.”
This is the first installment of a weekly blog about the SFLC ’s work or a development in the free software community.
I spent last Thursday and Friday in Brussels, attending the European Commission’s Oral Hearing in the competition investigation of the acquisition of Sun Microsystems by Oracle. The proceedings at the Oral Hearing were confidential; I cannot write about the presentations made there by others. I can, however, summarize the three points I made during my brief presentation on Friday; my previous written submission to the commission is already available. I want to explain what I said and where I think we stand now that the Oral Hearing is over.
Black Duck Software recently published some summary statistics about free and open source software license adoption, based on data it collected by crawling the web. The report lists “top 20 licenses that are used in open source projects” and the proportion of projects which use each license, as well as historical figures purportedly representing the number of projects using and planning to use GPLv3 variants for each month of the last two years. Because of inherent difficulties in collecting this kind of data, and because Black Duck’s own methods are opaque and unverifiable, the report is largely meaningless.
Law.com recently ran a sensationalist piece by Edmund J. Walsh warning of the impending “dangerous real world business dispute” in store for any for-profit company that uses free software. Walsh points to lawsuits filed by SFLC on behalf BusyBox as a source of this danger, and having worked on those lawsuits, I hope I can provide a helpful counterpoint.