Software Monopolies and Open Source Pt. II

So it used to be if you joined the patent consortium and you’re helping to set a standard, you could basically print money.”

Danese Cooper, board member of the Open Source Initiative, gives a short introduction about the relationship between software companies, software patents and the concept of Open Source.

  • Date of recording: Fri, 2005-01-21
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00:00 My son was involved in helping the W3C come up with language about patents in spaces for interoperability. So it used to be if you joined the patent consortium and you’re helping to set a standard, you could basically print money. If you got a company… you’ve got a standards body to adopt your proprietary software as a standard.

00:24 A good example of this is when I worked for Apple one of the projects I worked in was called QuickTime Conferencing [QTC] – it was very cool, it was two-way video conferencing over the internet using IP and way ahead of its time, way, way ahead of its time; so much so, that when Steve [Apple chief executive Steve Jobs] came back, he said “This isn’t ready to be a product yet” and he killed it. But now they have basically QuickTime Conferencing in the iChat project, right?

Okay, so in those days, one of the reasons why Apple got out of that business, was the standards that had been adopted, the H.323/H.320 standards, used codecs (compression and decompression software) that were owned by AT&T and Lucent and a couple of other companies, and because these got accepted in the standard, the only way that you could interoperate with another vendor that was doing videoconferencing, was to support the standards. And the licensing fees to support the standards were over a million dollars - before you ever wrote a line of code - just to own the rights to be able to use the standard. That’s not reasonable and non-discriminatory.

Apple got out of that business because they didn’t think they could afford it, right? And some of the people that worked on this project went up to Microsoft because Microsoft would have this big deep pocket and they could buy up all of the rights. Well that’s not the right direction if you’re trying to promote healthy competition and innovation in the market. So we helped the W3C come up with language that says “Where patents touch interoperability, they should be licensed on a royalty-free basis”. And famously, - to go back to your first question – IBM prefers reasonable and non-discriminatory terms.
But, who’s deciding what’s reasonable? And who’s deciding what’s non-discriminatory? The Open Source community feels pretty strongly that any price is discriminatory [laughs]. And especially - I mean, to get to the developing world - when we first opened OpenOffice, it was almost immediately localized into Thai, because a legal copy of Microsoft Office at the time cost roughly two years’ work – that’s assuming that you didn’t buy food and you didn’t… you know, have to have heating or other anything else – two years of work to buy a legal copy. So of course everything was pirated. OpenOffice they can use legally and comfortably and it’s actually gotten us interaction in Thailand in spite of the fact that Microsoft recently lowered the price of Office in Thailand to… I think $20, which is really cheap if you know what it’s supposed to cost, that’s basically the cost of production.
03:21 I question why they would take such a drastic move to hold a market. Because you can’t do that forever, even Microsoft can’t afford to do that forever – give stuff away at the cost of production. So I’m thinking they must either be trying to sort out what to do next, or they think they’ve got a strategy that’s eventually going to undermine the Open Source community. When I look at what that strategy might be, I’m very concerned about Trusted Computing and its potential. The EFF has a lot of good information on their website at about Trusted Computing and how it might be used for evil.
04:00 The problem is, they’re useful technologies taken one at a time, but it’s possible to combine them in a way that would make it very difficult for software choice to continue, for people to be able to put whatever software they want on a system. And I think it’s very important if you guys are successful at battling the patent system, you should be very worried about this I guess you should be battling stuff like this too. Don’t let systems that can lock user configuration down into your ecosystem because that’s just too dangerous.



Interview by Mariann Unterluggauer