Monthly Archives: February 2013

Defensive Publications at Embedded World 2013

Embedded World has started today in Nürnberg, Germany. I am here with Open Invention Network to spread the idea of defensive publications and OIN’s non-aggression community of companies in the Open Source sphere. Highly innovative companies present here, and many of them face the same dilemma — if the innovators decide not to patent their inventions, they run the risk that another party applies for a patent of the same invention later. The decision not to patent could be for ethical reasons because they understand that software patents are harmful, or for business or many other reasons. The problem stays the same, there is a threat that patents are awarded even though similar solutions already existed.

There are many software patents out there that experts consider obvious, not inventive or trivial. All of those three are reasons that the patent should have been rejected. Especially important for complex but non-inventive ones, the patent examiner did not discover relevant prior art when scrutinising the patent application. The state of the art was not documented and accessible in a way that supported a good decision. Defensive publications are one answer to this problem. They offer a cheap and fast way to document inventions. Also, defensive publications are available for areas that legally should not be patentable, like software as such.

Through, companies and research institutions, but also individual developers can submit defensive publications relevant to Linux and Open Source in general. Linux Defenders is backed by Open Invention Network on it’s mission to prevent bad software patents. We want to support developers and inventors to document their ideas as explicit prior art. Our goal is to ensure freedom to operate for the innovators in Open Source. If you are interested, worried about your invention or have any questions, you can find Armijn Hemel and me in hall 5, booth 341. Or ping me on Twitter @mirkoboehm.

Mirko Boehm

I ♥ Free Software (and why)

Today is February 14. Some think of it as flower grocer appreciation day, but most (and for better reasons) celebrate it as the international I ♥ Free Software day. I spend a lot of my time on various Free Software activities, like KDE, FSFE, OIN and I even research it and teach about it. These contributions have become something I regularily do. Every minute I spend as a contributor is thoroughly rewarding. Here is why.

I ♥ Free Software

I ♥ Free Software

I was thinking to begin with how I selflessly work for the common good and all, but the first and foremost reason why I love Free Software is because I am a tinkerer. Not only do I love to code, but I have an urge to understand how things really work. Free Software allows me to to do just that. At the age of 12, I was into electronics. I built power amplifiers. At 14, disco light shows to impress the ladies (it failed to induce the desired effect). Then, Z80 based chess computers. This triggered my interest in software, since the actual chess program used was a binary CMOS image and I had no idea how it worked, and was practically unable to figure it out. Then came a C64, on which I learned programming in 8 bit assembly (the assembler came on a cartridge and did not even support labels for jumps). Later at university I asked the teachers if it would be possible to, instead of handing in throw-away programming assignments, do course work on a Free Software project. Luckily they accepted (quite far-sighted, in 1997), and that is what got me into KDE. I have been there ever since.

So Free Software gives me the opportunity, the freedom to tinker and explore, to really understand how the computers I use work. What makes that infinite times better is that I can share my findings, be it code, or a theory. At the latest since the industrial revolution, we grew accustomed to the idea that to create complex and costly products, companies or governments are needed. These come with a certain level of rigidity and subordination of individual interest. While this is acceptable since it pays the bills and is sometimes necessary to get things done, it requires following some other parties priorities and goals. It distracts from pursuing those challenges that we really care most about. Those would likely be the ones each of us excels most at. We do not invent, create and improve to our full potential when working for others. We do, in Free Software communities (and other collaborative communities of similar kind) – they enable us to flock together on similar interests, and create something – like a Free Software desktop – we are truly and genuinely passionate about. Because of that I enjoy working on KDE, a community that treats all contributors as equals, and is open for everybody to join.

The benefits of Free Software go beyond the individual contributors and the communities they form. The four freedoms laid out as the foundations of Free Software are a fanfare to the ability to exercise one’s free will, to freely collaborate by helping your neighbors, to achieve independence from directions other people have thought up for us. The effects can be seen all around us – when teaching material for schools is developed collaboratively and freely shared, when government data is opened up to improve the transparency of the political process, when the technical foundations of the internet and the operating systems running modern technology become a common good, and in many other places. People start to expect similar freedoms they learned to get used to in software when engaging in society. And more participation is always better.

This is why I love Free Software. It makes the world a better place. If you love Free Software too, follow this simple advice to show your appreciation to those who contribute to it.

FOSDEM’13: Community development and legal issues devroom

Hello! I am at the FOSDEM, the Free and Open source Software Developers’ European Meeting, in Brussels. The flight here last night from Berlin was delayed, so I missed the pre-party. Instead I bumped into Frank Karlitschek of ownCloud and his buddies. This immediately sparked a discussion about company-community relations over a pint and something to nibble on. After an interesting excursion into the city of Brussels this morning (we trusted the navigation system and ended up at the wrong university campus in the first trial), I finally made it to the venue. In the following, find some notes from presentations I attended.

Messaging for Free Software Groups and Projects

Messaging for Free Software Groups and Projects

Messaging for Free Software Groups and Projects

Deborah Nicholson presented on messaging for Free Software communities, a topic that commonly gives contributors that shivering feeling down the spine that  they should do something about it, and then procrastinate about it. Her suggestions are simple and easy to implement: Tell a positive story about your project. The audience pointed to Thumper’s rule: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” My children probably heard it a thousand times by now, but it never grows old. Teach people how to help themselves. Use neutral examples and by that, avoid stereotypes (like presumptions about income levels or technical inclinations of certain groups). Be welcoming  and approachable. Welcome all contributors, not just coders, and regularly thank them for their work. Be approachable to users and contributors – when at a conference, do not hide behind your laptop (maybe do not even bring one). Have two people at your booth, showing that the project is fun to work on. Consider standing in front of the booth to remove the barrier of the conference table.

Deb explained how people respond more to the “Why” of a project than the “What”. The choice of programming language or database system may not be as interesting for them up front than the problem that the project will help them to solve. Following her simple guidelines to FLOSS projects attracts contributors and users. They are a good thing to keep in mind.

Should we embrace app stores?

Amanda Brock and Simon PhippsAmanda Brock ( and Simon Phipps ask whether or not Free Software developers can and should contribute to app stores. Interestingly, most of the audience consisted of contributors, not lawyers. This emphasises that there are problems with the terms since they concern way more people than they should. App store terms limit the options for distributing Free Software, which reduces software freedom. A central issue is that the app store conditions cannot reduce the freedoms granted to users by the original strong copyleft license. In the case of a sole owner of a software project, this owner can decide to still offer the product in the app store. In the more common case of many contributors, all would have to agree to those limitations of freedoms. Also, app stores require guarantees by the software vendor that they do not violate 3rd party rights and other requirements, which conflicts with the no-guarantee clause of FLOSS licenses. And finally, the app store needs to fulfil other requirements of the licenses, such as access to the source code.

Simon expects app stores to become the dominant way of distribution, and sees the need to embrace app stores to maintain software freedom. Distributors see them as a natural control points for monetarization. The people involved in defining those terms did not think much about FLOSS and software freedom, they did not intentionally hurt FLOSS. The exception is Apple which did explicitly exclude the GPL in the list of acceptable licenses. The audience commented that this GPL exclusion clause was recently no more to be found, which could not be confirmed.

Over time, app stores conditions gradually became friendlier towards FLOSS. The business units running the app stores have no motivation to reduce the availability of FLOSS, but they need to see the benefits of opening their store for FLOSS. Microsoft found an elegant solution for the Windows 8 store (a lawyer’s dream, as Amanda put it) – the terms essentially say “You may not violate our conditions, unless the Open Source license requires it.” This means that the FLOSS license trumps the stores terms and condition, which solves a lot of potential problems, even though it left some open questions about DRM.

So if FLOSS is allowed in app stores, there remains the ethical question of whether or not communities should offer FLOSS in app stores. Simon explains how he thinks it is imperative that we do – FLOSS is a journey for the user, and the app stores will be the future first point of experience. To make users aware that they are using Free Software, communities should make a conscious effort to surface software freedom in the app. Users need to know the source code is available and that there is a community developing it.

At the end of the presentation, a quick poll showed that the vast majority of the people present think FLOSS should be offered in app stores, with only very few “No” votes. Now the majority is not always right, it may also be that those few understand the problem better. However, this shows that contributors want their software to be available to end users in app stores. More work needs to be done to align the interests of app store owners and the Free Software communities to achieve that.

How to share a trademark

Trademarks are very common, they are designed to protect consumers against deception. Open Source projects often do not care much about trademarks, or even think they do not have one. KDE is planning to develop a trademark licensing policy (for a while now), so this input from Pamela Chestek is hugely relevant.

What is sometimes surprising is that Open Source project names are trademarks (except in fringe cases). Names become trademarks when they are used in public to describe a product or service, this goes for FLOSS Projects as well. Registered trademarks are a subset, but registration is not required.

So communities need to think about what kinds of usages of their project names they want to allow. This often raises the claim (taken from Pamela’s slides) that “I want everyone to use the name!” The question is whether or not that is really true. As any others, FLOSS projects need to protect their good name. For example, the names (trademarks!) of Open Source programs have been used in credit card scams by fake download sites. Simon Phipps comments how Mozilla used it’s trademarks to defend against a case like that.

Trademarks need to reference specific products or services. Avoid picking a name that is a generic term or a pop culture reference. Those may either not become trademarks because they are too generic, or be contested later. Some uses have to be allowed for the project name to be useful. For example, distributors need to be able to use the project name to list it in the software repositories. There is also the possibility to share too much, which may invalidate the trademark. When the name refers to a category of products, for example, the trademark looses it’s function. Then there is the functionality doctrine – a trademark cannot be used as a lock. That is why OpenSSH was able to create a binary called ssh, or why it is possible to replace the sendmail program binary with a competing implementation. On top of this, such program names that are used in scripts become an API, and can therefore be used in alternatives.

There are considerations to create model trademark licenses that apply to certain layers of the stack, and to categories of projects. This would actually be hugely helpful, since very likely, the goals of many volunteer community projects will be similar. Many thanks to Pamela for her presentation, it gives us a lot to think about!

Later update, February 4

Made it home safely from FOSDEM, no delays this time. I attended a few more excellent talks, namely the one about community metrics by Dawn Foster, but there was not enough time for write-ups. My own talk about The perils of patents for embedded & mobile development was well-received in the embedded devroom (there will be a separate post about it a little later). FOSDEM’13 was great, I met many old friends and interesting new people. Looking forward to next year!)