Stallman: 'Patent licenses discriminate'

RAND patent licenses are normally neither reasonable nor non-discriminatory, says Richard Stallman. They discriminate against the free software community.

In order for standards to be useful for the general computer-using public, the standards must be freely implementable by all.

In order to give free software a chance to compete, the standards must allow free software implementations. Many standards bodies do not insist on this--they promulgate patent-restricted standards that the public cannot freely implement and that don't allow free software at all.

These standards bodies typically have a policy of obtaining patent licenses that require a fixed fee per copy of a conforming program. They often refer to such licenses by the term "RAND," which stands for "reasonable and non-discriminatory." That term whitewashes a class of patent licenses that are normally neither reasonable nor non-discriminatory. It is true that these licenses do not discriminate against any specific person, but they do discriminate against the free software community, and that makes them unreasonable. Thus, half of "RAND" is deceptive and the other half is prejudiced.

Standards bodies should recognize that such licenses are discriminatory, and drop the use of the term "reasonable and non-discriminatory" or "RAND" to describe them. Until they do so, other writers who do not wish to join in the whitewashing would do well to reject that term. To accept and use it merely because patent-wielding companies have made it widespread is to let those companies dictate the views you express.

I suggest the term "uniform fee only," or "UFO" for short, as a replacement for "RAND."

Even when the patent license for a standard does not require a fee, it can still prohibit free software if it is too narrow. Some patent licenses for standards only apply to "implementation of the standard," which means that even the slightest change in the standard functionality is prohibited. One of the freedoms that define free software is the freedom to publish a modified version; therefore, a program in which you cannot freely change many details of the functionality is not free software.

Do RAND licenses discriminate against free software? Speak your mind in our TalkBack forum.

Richard Stallman is president of the Free Software Foundation and author of the GNU Public License.

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