Letter from RMS to Tim O'Reilly

Here's a message that Richard M. Stallman sent to Tim O'Reilly on March 11, 2000, in regard to the statement by Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, which called for software patents to last just 3 or 5 years.

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The idea that software patents should last 3 or 5 years has been proposed for a decade now, as a compromise that would eliminate most of the harm that software patents now do. Support for this idea from Jeff Bezos is a good thing, since it may bring us a step closer to action by Congress. Congratulations for helping to bring this about.

But such a law is far from imminent, and in the mean time, Amazon is still responsible for its actions.

We singled out Amazon for a boycott, among the thousands of companies that have obtained software patents, because Amazon is among the few that have gone so far as to actually sue someone. That makes them an egregious offender. Most software patent holders say they have software patents “for defensive purposes.” to press for cross-licensing in case they are threatened with patent lawsuits. Since this is a real strategy for self-defense, many of these patent holders could mean what they say. But this excuse is not available for Amazon, because they fired the first shot.

Bezos's letter reaffirms Amazon's continuing intention to engage in unrestricted patent warfare, saying that the decision of when and where to attack will be decided by “business reasons.” I would gladly join Bezos in supporting a bill to limit software patents to 3 or 5 years, but I believe we must continue to criticize and boycott Amazon until such a bill is actually adopted—or until Amazon makes some other suitable change in its own conduct to justify a change in ours.

This does not mean insisting that Amazon must go so far as to terminate its own patents. Deterrence with patents is an inadequate defense against aggressors armed with patents, but it is the only defense, so I would not ask Amazon (or anyone) to refrain from using patents for self-defense or for collective security. Rather, Amazon and other software patent holders should abjure the use of patents for aggression, and adopt a no-first-use policy. If Amazon does this, in an irrevocable and binding way, I would have no further criticism of Amazon.