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Last Updated: Friday, 23 January, 2004, 11:41 GMT
Software patents 'threaten Linux'
Open source advocate Bruce Perens tells BBC technology correspondent Clark Boyd why the real threat to Linux and the open source movement is not from the SCO lawsuits, but from software patents.

Brazilian Linux cyber cafe
Linux is used in internet cafes in Brazil
Clark Boyd: Linux seems to be going more and more mainstream. Suddenly there are advertisements by IBM on television promoting Linux. What do you make of this mainstreaming of the whole open source idea?

Bruce Perens: I like the fact that the IBM ads emphasise the openness. I saw one the other day that compared Linux to a child that had been adopted by the world. And I think that's a great theme, and it's very different than what you usually hear from IBM.

CB: Are the major companies becoming involved in Linux, helping to channel that creativity in ways that didn't exist before?

BP: Certainly the entrance of IBM, Hewlett Packard and a number of other companies, is helping. The main way is that it's helping us get more appreciation from the rest of the world. We are no longer isolated geeks making a system only we know is good. And I think there's a lot of benefit.

I think maybe some of the more naive around the world may think that Linux comes from IBM, but there are a good many people who appreciate the role of Linus Torvalds who may also appreciate the role of Guido van Rossum, the writer of the Python language.

Patent problem

CB: What do you see as the main challenges to Linux in the next year to 18 months, especially regarding the lawsuits brought by SCO which are still pending in the courts?

Bruce Perens
We're looking at a future where only the very largest companies will be able to implement software, and it will technically be illegal for other people to do so
Bruce Perens
BP: The good news is that SCO has pretty much exhausted any chance of being successful in court. Their legal discovery documents have not yielded sufficient evidence. But, let's go on to the future beyond SCO.

The biggest challenge that will face us after that is software patenting. Software patents that are being accepted are not necessarily inventions, their definitions are overbroad. And you can never finish a patent search. The definitions are so broad, you can't ever be sure a company would or would not assert their patent on what you are doing.

You have to consider engineers today spend their entire careers combining other people's intellectual property. And every small and medium sized enterprise is at risk regarding software patenting. That is a problem in Europe, because representatives to the European Parliament are pushing very hard for software patenting that would indeed shut out all small and medium businesses from the software development business, not just open source.

We're looking at a future where only the very largest companies will be able to implement software, and it will technically be illegal for other people to do so. That's a very, very bad situation developing. We must do something so that there is reason for people to innovate, there is reason for people to invent, but that companies can execute without this constant fear that we will be sued into the ground regarding software patenting.

'Lots of friends'

CB: What about the positives for Linux coming up in next year to 18 months? I believe you've called 2004 the year of Linux on the desktop?

As Linux and open source become more important in business, we hope that those friends will be ones with political influence, who can make sure that the world remains a healthy place for open source software
Bruce Perens
BP: We have all of the Linux-based software we need for 80% of the people in the world. The other 20% may use specialised applications that are not yet available in open source. And when I say 80%, that's all free software. What we're doing in 2004 is some bug removal, and some integration, not additional features, because the features are all already there.

I think we will see some significantly-sized desktop deployments. IBM says they already have 15,000 Linux desktop deployments across the company. We'd like to see the rest of the company using the Linux desktop as well. I think we will see the same in other businesses.

The interesting thing here is that because of the sort of benevolent nature of open source, we have a lot of friends. As Linux and open source become more important in business, we hope that those friends will be ones with political influence, who can make sure that the world remains a healthy place for open source software.

CB: Looking at the increased commercialisation of Linux-based products, do you see any threat of Linux becoming, in its own way, just as monolithic as Microsoft? Or can Linux grow, and still stay true to its open source roots?

BP: We are facing a problem in that there are two dominant companies in Linux distribution - Red Hat and Novell, which just purchased SuSE. We do not intend to let it stay that way. I'm leading a project called User Linux. The project aims to make a zero-cost Linux distribution, where people, if they want service, will pay for service on a services rendered basis. And we're establishing a global support network made of small companies, more than large ones, to make that work.

And if we take the open source paradigm, which is a lot of little guys all around the world collaborating to make an organisation bigger than IBM or Microsoft, and we take that to the business sector, we may really invent something new here, taking open source into the economy to a degree it has never gone before.

Bruce Perens is the primary author of the Open Source Definition, the manifesto of the open source movement and has been a spokesperson for Linux and the open source movement for more than a decade.

Clark Boyd is technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH-Boston co-production


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