Why I disagree with RMS concerning Mono

9:09 am freesoftware, gimp, gnome, maemo, openwengo

The GNOME press contact alias got a mail last weekend from Sam Varghese asking about the possibility of new Mono applications being added to GNOME 3.0, and I answered it. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but I see now that the reason Sam was asking was because of Richard Stallman’s recent warnings about Mono – Sam’s article has since appeared with the ominous looking title “GNOME 3.0 may have more Mono apps“. And indeed it may. It may also have more alien technology, we’re not sure yet. We’re still working on an agreement with the DoD to get access to the alien craft in Fort Knox.

Anyway – that aside, Richard’s position is that it’s dangerous to include Mono to the point where removing it is difficult, should that become necessary to legally distribute your software. On the surface, I agree. But he goes a little further, saying that since it is dangerous to depend on Mono, we should actively discourage its use. And on this point, we disagree.

I’m not arguing that we should encourage its use either, but I fundamentally disagree with discouraging someone from pursuing a technology choice because of the threat of patents. In this particular case, the law is an ass. The patent system in the United States is out of control and dysfunctional, and it is bringing the rest of the world down with it. The time has come to take a stand and say “We don’t care about patents. We’re just not going to think about them. Sue us if you want.”

The healthy thing to do now would be to provoke a test case of the US patent system. Take advantage of one of the many cease & desist letters that get sent out for vacuous patented technology to make a case against the US PTO’s policy pertaining to software and business process patents. Run an “implement your favourite stupid patent as free software” competition.

In all of the projects that I have been involved in over the years, patent fears have had a negative affect on developer productivity and morale. In the GIMP, we struggled with patent issues related to compression algorithms for GIF and TIFF, colour management, and for some plug-ins. In GNOME, it’s been Mono mostly, but also MP3, and related (and unrelated) issues have handicapped basic functionality like playing DVDs for years. In Openwengo, the area of audio and video codecs is mined with patent restrictions, including the popular codecs G729 and H264 among others.

What could we have achieved if standards bodies had a patent pledge as part of their standardisation process, and released reference implementations under an artistic licence? How much further along would we be if cryptography, filesystems, codecs and data compression weren’t so heavily handicapped by patents? Or if we’d just ignored the patents and created clean-room implementations of these patented technologies?

That’s what I believe we need to do. Ignore the patent system completely. I believe strongly in respecting licencing requirements related to third party products and developer packs. I think it’s reasonable to respect people’s trademarks and trade secrets. But having respect for patents, and the patent system, is ridiculous. Let a thousand flowers bloom, and let the chips fall where they may.

So if you want to write a killer app in Mono, then don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If you build it, they will come.

43 Responses

  1. glandium Says:

    As long as companies’ (such as TomTom) response to threats from patent trolls is to settle for a huge amount of money, you can’t really ignore patents.

    Not even counting the fact that defending yourself from patent trolls is going to cost you money, even if you don’t go the settlement path.

  2. Dave Neary Says:

    Imagine a major patent holder like HP who do not agree with the patent system suing someone for patent infringement, just to create a test case. Could happen…

  3. dirk Says:

    Dave,

    Depending on who you are, there is a definite chance that you get into deep trouble for playing ostrich regarding software patents.

    You seem to suggest that ignoring them will improve the situation — and that this would outweigh this risk.

    But do you have any evidence for that, other than what you ‘believe’?

    I think it’s not a good idea to suggest people to take possibly big risks without clearly understanding the pros and cons.

  4. Dave Neary Says:

    Dirk,

    Funnily enough, patent law actively encourages you to be an ostrich. You are potentially liable for more if you inform yourself about the patent landscape and are later sued for patent infringement (even if you are sure there is no infringement). There are triple damages for willful infringement of patents. So it’s better to just implement what you want and pretty much avoid reading any patents at all to figure out if you’re infringing or not.

    The cons are the cons associated with every act of civil disobedience: you’re on the wrong side of the law. But the law’s an ass, and changing it is impossible unless there is a very public display of its assness. You can be arrested, have belongings seized, be found in contempt of court, lose millions of dollars in damages in lower courts before ever reaching an appellate court that is empowered to rule on the validity of the PTO’s patent rulings.

    The pros are you get to be a hero, famous, adored by millions, and a poster boy for free software and civil liberties activists around the world. And you get to have the law changed. Who ever heard of Rosa Parks before she refused to change seats in a bus? Or Dmitri Skylarov before Adobe had him thrown in jail without a warrant? Or DVD Jon before he took the fall for the merry band of DSS hackers?

    Dave.

  5. ossi1967 Says:

    I like your position because it appeals to the rebel in me. I do pretty much the same with things that I think are wrong: I ignore them. (Which sometimes gets me into serious, really serious trouble. But it’s worth it, usually.)

    If this works on a larger scale… if a major project like Gnome should dare to act the same way I do in my private (and professional) life… I don’t know. As an enthusiastic Gnome user, I wouldn’t want to see my favorite desktop facing legal problems some day because they chose to ignore evident threats.

    BTW: I run gentoo, and one of the things I’ve successfully managed to ignore is – Mono. For technical and ideological reasons. See? The strategy works both ways. ;)

  6. Benjamin Otte Says:

    Dave, does that mean that you think Mozilla should add support for H264 to Firefox instead of pushing ogg?
    Could you clarify your position towards HTML5 video?

  7. Chris Says:

    Dave, these are very true words, I agree 100%.

  8. dean Says:

    You’re a genius. Microsoft should hire you!:)

  9. Dave Neary Says:

    Benjamin: I’m not sufficiently expert to evaluate the technical merits of H264 vs Theora. Both potentially have patent issues – the difference between Theora and H264 is that H264′s patent issues are well understood.

    My position in a nutshell is this: if implementing a patent-encumbered codec is required for interoperability, to give your users a good experience, then you should do it. I don’t believe there’s a lot of H264 video out there right now in video tags, so in a green-field situation, there is merit in supporting the protocol you believe has the most merit. I don’t see any inconsistency in Mozilla pushing ogg, while also adding support for H264 is it’s what’s best for their users.

    Dave.

  10. Ben Asselstine Says:

    The law isn’t an ass, the companies that attack Free Software with patents are the asses.

  11. Frank Fox Says:

    You make a *big* mistake by comparing single persons (like Rosa Parks) with the problems that arise from patent issues.

    There is no corporate interest in suing private persons who do not respect their patents (in fact in many countries the pure private use of patented things are allowed). So in many cases this has nothing to do with “civil-disobedience”….

    What patents-trolls aim at are medium sized companies who usually agree on an out of court settlement.

    And so the company (with its employees) can decide to either go to a very expensive and long court trial or just pay some license fees. That is a real risk.

    So if Gnome relies on Mono (when for example central applications are written in it) then it is possible that Microsoft (or a subsidiary) decides to attack companies who use Gnome. This then drives other companies away from Gnome (or even FLOSS solutions in general).
    Therefor Mono in fact CAN harm Gnome or FLOSS in general.

    Of course this is quite theoretical but given the track-record of Microsoft (and other patent trolls) there is quite a probability that in the future bad things might happen.

    So I think it’s fine to discourage developers in using Mono. Maybe promote (risk-)free alternatives like Vala is the better approach.

  12. Dan Says:

    This is like saying that drug dealers should advertise their products on national TV, because that would force the government to rethink its drug policy. Sure, it would certainly spark some discussions, and maybe it would do long-term good, but in the short run, it would mostly just result in a lot of arrests against drug dealers.

    Likewise, anyone making money off something that is patented, and publically claiming that they are not bound by the patent, will certainly get publicity, but their company will be sued into non-existence pretty much instantaneously.

    Also, the alien spaceships are at Area 51. Fort Knox is the gold reserves.

  13. Dave Neary Says:

    Dan: That’s almost exactly what marijuana action groups do. They openly grow weed, openly produce hemp products, openly criticise government policy. And run the risk of arrest. Their goal is to show that the drug laws are a joke, by showing the good stuff you can do with hemp. Not saying I agree with them, just saying that your example is poorly chosen :)

  14. Chuck Says:

    I agree with your thinking here. The patent system is rather broke. I have no programing talent to do this and create an app that takes on someone’s patent.

    Dave, here’s your chance. Create an app using Mono and that steps on one or more additional patents and take on the relevant patent holder. We’ll be here cheering you on!

  15. Murray Cumming Says:

    I’m all for challenging the patent system. But I wouldn’t choose Microsoft as my first opponent in that fight. They have enough money and power to destroy any company that you think might help you, and they will give us enough rope to hang ourselves.

    The Mono legal fears are not just about patents in general – it’s about Microsoft’s history of destructive behavior and not wanting to make it any easier for them. And no, there is no real promise from Microsoft not to pursue patents for Mono.

  16. prokoudine Says:

    Dave, your jumping from “we” to “I” while explaining things like hat kind of worries me :)

  17. Luarvique L. Luarvique Says:

    I would suggest against using Mono in GNOME 3.x or any other significant project. Not for some political or legal reason, but simply on technical grounds. The world has just finished fighting the Java pandemia (with Eclipse being one of the last remaining ulcers). We really, REALLY do not need another Java, whatever it is called.

  18. yungchin Says:

    Thanks, that was a good read! Reminded me of this essay of Paul Graham’s. He’s essentially advising the startups he funds to ignore patents.

    The second bit of advice is also interesting: while you shouldn’t be bothered by existing patents, you should “play ball” and get your own set of patents assigned, too. I’m sure there’s plenty stuff in Gnome that the patent office would grant patents for…

  19. dirk Says:

    Dave,

    Thanks about the clarification, but still…

    If you’re an individual you might remain under the radar (and nothing will change). If you’re a company, you might get sued (in the US).

    In neither of those case, you will become a ‘hero’. Many people may sympathize with Rosa Parks, but very few people care the least bit about software patents. The Skylarov/DVD-Jon cases did not affect the law… and even their 15 min of fame is 15 min more than any software patent ‘infringer’ ever got.

    So, IMHO, your proposal brings potential big risks (esp. if you’re a company) and a low (my estimate) chance of improvements. I tend to agree with Stallman in this case.

    BTW: not wilfully ‘infringing’ patents may help you a bit in court, but does not solve the issue (and increases risks). Also, it seems a bit inconsistent that for
    the defense of your ignore-software-patent-law proposal, you use part of that same law…

    ok, enough :-) time to go out and enjoy the sun.

  20. Rodney Dawes Says:

    Just so you know, the only thing in Fort Knox is Nazi Gold. All the cool alien stuff is out in the New Mexico desert.

    And if RMS’s goal is to discourage people from using stuff due to fear of patent claims, shouldn’t he be discouraging people from working on software? :)

  21. Software patents are silly – Henri Bergius | rapid-DEV.net Says:

    [...] Dave Neary summed this up well: …I fundamentally disagree with discouraging someone from pursuing a technology choice because of the threat of patents. In this particular case, the law is an ass. The patent system in the United States is out of control and dysfunctional, and it is bringing the rest of the world down with it. The time has come to take a stand and say “We don’t care about patents. We’re just not going to think about them. Sue us if you want.” [...]

  22. Dave Neary Says:

    @Rodney: That’s what they want you to believe.

  23. Sam Varghese Says:

    Get your facts straight, Neary.

    I wrote to you on June 26, 11.03am, Australian Eastern Standard Time (AEST). Richard Stallman’s post was made on June 26, 5.43pm US time – which is at least 14 hours behind AEST. Hence I could not possibly have sent you the query I did after having seen his Richard’s post.

    I have quoted what you said and drawn conclusions based on your words. Don’t blame me for the message – blame yourself.

  24. Poopy Pants Says:

    The time has come to take a stand and say “We don’t care about patents. We’re just not going to think about them. Sue us if you want.”

    ^^^That is the stupidest thing I’ve heard in quite a while.

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  26. Jason Says:

    My thoughts on my blog

    Summary: It’s a bit unfair to call on individuals or non-Novell projects to make “the mono patent stand”.

    It is Novell that is pushing mono – so it is Novell’s responsibility to make sure everything is clear for everybody.

  27. Sam Varghese Says:

    Get your fact straight, Neary.

    Don’t delete comments to try and hide your incompetence.

    I wrote to you on June 26 at 11.03am Australian Eastern Standard Time.

    RMS posted his statement on June 26 at 5.43pm US time – which is at least 14 hours behind AEST.

    Hence it is impossible for me to have read his post before writing to you.

    I used your reply to write the piece. Don’t blame me for conclusions which you made.

  28. Dave Neary Says:

    Hi Sam,

    Comments to this blog get pushed into moderation for any number of reasons. Your first message arrived at 12:25 am UTC, your second at 12:26 am and your third, accusing me of deleting your comment, at 2:33 am. A little patience there, please.

    I will concede that you wrote your article (which refers to RMS warning about the dangers of Mono) before he published his open letter. I imagine that there was some event which triggered your writing of the article, and I assumed (after the fact) that RMS’s recent public statements on Mono might be it. Excuse me for my error.

    I did not contest the voracity of your article, except on the points which I already commented on your blog (Fedora Core still ships Mono and even installs F-Spot by default, I have been told). Perhaps the newsworthiness, but that’s a subjective thing, so I cede the point. I told you there was no way to know whether new Mono apps would be added, but that there were no plans to do so at this time. You quoted me accurately in the article, but chose to present this as “there might be new Mono apps in future releases”. I now augment what I told you by saying that we have no current plans to include alien technology. I don’t see your problem, or your point.

    Dave.

  29. James B Says:

    Interesting ideas. I agree the patent system is a sham.
    The problem with using mono in Gnome is not that Gnome might get sued, but that its users might get sued, and that would stop Gnome being used and what would Gnome be if it had no users either because of being sued of the threat of being sued. Look at the deal with Novel, its the users who wont get sued, not Novel. So it would be the users of Gnome who’d get sued. The developers of Gnome have a duty to “look after” their users.
    I don’t particularly like MS but some of their stuff is ok (credit where credit due), but if I can find an alternative I will because I just dont trust MS.

  30. bkor Says:

    Fedora Core is the old name, now it is just Fedora.

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  33. Havoc Says:

    The phrase “test case” makes it sound like there’s a legal controversy here. I don’t think there is. There’s a social controversy about what the law _should_ be, but I don’t think there’s a ton of controversy about what the law _is_, which is that software patents are allowed.

    Your case would be a sort of “demonstration of the obvious” case, rather than a “test” case ;-) where “the obvious” is that you would lose.

    (Assuming you can’t invalidate the patent. But if you invalidate some specific patent, that only “tests” that patent, not the patent system. And you don’t have to get sued to invalidate a specific patent, you can just send the prior art to USPTO.)

  34. PL Hayes Says:

    ““GNOME 3.0 may have more Mono apps“. And indeed it may. It may also have more alien technology¹, we’re not sure yet.”

    Common Lisp? Really? Now that /would/ be a change for the better ;-)

    On a – slightly – more serious note… Frank Fox, James B. and others are right: the problems and potential problems caused by software patents range from the highly visible but more or less inconsequential to the insidious but profoundly consequential. It seems to me that the Mono issue is a case of the latter. The (world class) IP/business strategists at Microsoft and elsewhere truly believe that you and I are using their property gratis and without their permission. They’ve said publicly that they want ‘respect’ for their ‘intellectual property’² and the way patent economics works, large portfolio holders do actually aim to maximise revenue and control but in such a way as to minimise overt conflict and litigation.³ Unless and until economic (and ethical) literacy and sanity are restored to patent system policy and practice, I think they should be given as little concrete ‘justification’ for and opportunity to act upon their beliefs and business strategies as possible.

    ¹ http://lispers.org/

    ² http://blogs.zdnet.com/microsoft/?p=265 — highly ironic of course given that in an area like software, it’s not unreasonable to regard (a large proportion of) the patents themselves as ‘IP theft’.

    ³ http://anticipatethis.wordpress.com/2009/06/16/review-burning-the-ships-intellectual-property-and-the-transformation-of-microsoft/
    http://wiki.ffii.org/Rahnasto03En
    “I’m not running a litigation shop, I’m running a licensing shop.” — Marshall Phelps.

  35. Texrat Says:

    IMO patents are a necessary evil and not to blame here per se– rather, it is the increasingly burdensome law wrapped around the concept.

    I agree current law should be challenged (should we start a fund?) but disagree with anyone stating unequivocably that the patent concept needs to be scrapped. It just needs to be rationalized. Along those lines, IMO far too many software patents actually violate the typical patent gauntlet and should be invalidated outright. And business process patents? Idiotic.

  36. Dave Neary Says:

    @Texrat: I don’t believe that the patent system is evil, I believe that it has, put simply, become unpractical. And thus needs to be changed. It is kind of like a mailing list which starts out very high quality, and at some stage you start getting spam. First not that much, but as time goes by you get more & more. What do you do? You create a new mailing list & close down the old one, and you try to have better spam protection. The idea of the patent system is not bad, but its spam filter is not sufficiently developped, and thus there are many bad patents. The main problem with the patent system is that resolving a patent conflict is very costly, so people try to avoid at all cost patent conflict. So we need to either: ensure that there are no (or fewer) bad patents, reduce the cost and shift the burden of proof for patent infringement cases, and identify classes of things which are not patentable, in the interests of the public, and re-examine the patent system in light of its original goals.

    Don’t forget that the patent system was founded to allow knowledge to spread by having people reveal otherwise private information in exchange for a limited monopoly. That limited monopoly is now 28 years, which is a long long time for IT. And software patents don’t actually share any knowledge, they’re written to obscure the knowledge and be as broad as possible. So we should work to reduce the limited protection provided to patent holder, and ensure that patent holders provide sufficient information for anyone to implement the patentable algorithm. For a computer invention, that would imply publishing source code.

  37. Sam Varghese Says:

    Neary

    If you can’t see the point I made, then you are more obtuse than I first thought.

    Do you know for a fact that Fedora includes F-Spot in the default install? Have you seen it firsthand?

    Did you read the Fedora announcement carefully? if not, go back and read it.

    The use of weak humour to try and cover the fact that you really have no leg to stand on when it comes to criticising what I wrote, is the refuge of someone who is devoid of any kind of integrity.

    When something is correct, have the grace to do so.

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  43. Georg Smith Says:

    Look before you leap, talk privately to judges and measure your likelihood of success first. Then get some rich backers and away you go. Fingers crossed:-)

    G S