Bill Gates and Other Communists

Bill Gates discussed patents with CNET under the heading of “intellectual property,” a term that covers many disparate laws. He said anyone who won't give blanket support to all these laws is a Communist. Since I'm not a Communist but I have criticized software patents, I got to thinking this calumny might be aimed at me.

The term “intellectual property” is too broad to have one opinion about. It lumps together copyright law, patent law, and various other laws, whose requirements and effects are entirely different. So anyone using the term “intellectual property” is typically either confused himself, or trying to confuse you. Why does Mr. Gates lump these issues together? Let's study the differences he sets aside.

Software developers are not up in arms against copyright law, because the developer of a program holds the copyright on the program; as long as the programmers wrote the code themselves, no one else has a copyright on their code. There is no danger that strangers could have a valid case of copyright infringement against them.

Patents are a different story. Software patents don't cover programs or code; they cover ideas (methods, techniques, features, algorithms, etc.). Developing a large program entails combining thousands of ideas, and even if a few of them are new, the rest must necessarily have come from other sources, such as programs the developer has seen. If each of these ideas could be patented by someone, every large program is likely to infringe hundreds of patents. Developing a large program means laying oneself open to hundreds of potential lawsuits. Software patents are a menace to software developers, and to the users. Since patent law covers execution of the program, the users can also be sued.

A few fortunate software developers avoid most of the danger. These are the megacorporations, which typically have thousands of patents each, and cross-license with each other. This gives them an advantage over smaller rivals not in a position to do likewise. That's why it is generally the megacorporations that lobby for software patents.

Today's Microsoft is a megacorporation with thousands of patents. Microsoft said in court that the main competition for MS Windows is “Linux,” meaning the free software GNU/Linux operating system. Leaked internal documents say that Microsoft aims to use software patents to stop the development of GNU/Linux.

When Mr. Gates started hyping his solution to the problem of spam, I suspected this was a plan to use patents to grab control of the net. Sure enough, in 2004 Microsoft asked the IETF to approve a mail protocol that Microsoft was trying to patent. The patent license policy for this protocol was written to forbid free software entirely. No program supporting this mail protocol could be released as free software—not under the GNU GPL, or the MPL, or the Apache license, or any other.

The IETF rejected Microsoft's protocol, but Microsoft said it would try to convince major ISPs to use it anyway. Thanks to Mr. Gates, we now know that an open Internet with protocols anyone can implement is Communism; it was set up by that famous Communist agent, the US Department of Defense.

With Microsoft's market clout, it can impose its choice of programming system as a de-facto standard. Microsoft has already patented some .NET implementation methods, raising the concern that millions of users have been shifted to a government-issued Microsoft monopoly.

But Capitalism means monopoly; at least, Gates-style Capitalism does. People who think that everyone should be free to program, free to write complex software, they are Communists, says Mr. Gates. But these Communists have infiltrated even the Microsoft boardroom. Here's what Bill Gates told Microsoft employees in 1991:

If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today's ideas were invented and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete stand-still today. … A future start-up with no patents of its own will be forced to pay whatever price the giants choose to impose.

Mr. Gates' secret is out now—he too was a “Communist,” he too recognized that software patents were harmful, until Microsoft became one of these giants. Now Microsoft aims to use software patents to impose whatever price it chooses on you and me. And if we object, Mr. Gates will call us “Communists.”

If you're not afraid of name calling, visit the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure, and join the fight against software patents in Europe. We persuaded the European Parliament once—we even got support from right-wing MEPs—and with your help we will do it again.