Why I disagree with RMS concerning MonoJuly 2, 2009 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.