What can you do to help stop this trade agreement that has gotten the FSF (and the EFF, among others) up in arms? Don answers that question in the video (and accompanying transcript for those who would rather read than watch). And any unanswered questions will probably be taken care of in a second video interview with Mr. Robertson that we plan to run in the next day or two.
Timothy Lord for Slashdot: Don, can you talk a little bit about what your job with the FSF entails?
Donald Robertson : So as copyright and licensing associate, I primarily handle the corporate assignments at the FSF. Free Software Foundation hold the copyright on a large part of the GNU project, and the way we do that is that individual contributors assign their code to the FSF. So we can then go and enforce the GPL and make sure that the software is always free. That would be the second half of my job as I do the compliance work of actually investigating claims of GPL violations and talking to the violators and helping to bring them into compliance. I also do some sort of licensing related campaigns work where I write about licensing issues and keep people up to date on the actions and items that we are working on.
Slashdot: Now the FSF is not a big fan of the term intellectual property.
Don: No we don’t like the term intellectual property for a couple of reasons: One, it mooshes together some very different things like copyright and patent and trade secret that are actually very different, have different issues. It also because the use of the term property when you really should use maybe the term subsidy or welfare. It gives people this false idea that it is something akin to like owning real estate or something like that. When it is completely not that at all.
Slashdot: Now in terms of copyright, or rather in terms of software copyright seems to be the major aspect though of these things that are lumped together under that category of intellectual property. Copyright seems to be the big one that affects software.
Don: Well, traditionally software was just protected by copyright, also trade secret and other things, but copyright has been the main function of how software has been granted rights over.
Slashdot: And then patents have come in.
Don: And then patents have come in, over the past two decades, which is obviously a mistake on the part of the courts that have allowed it, both in terms of what the law is supposed to say, as well as just from an ethical standpoint. The thing about copyright and why it works okay with free software is that copyright prevents people from copying, it is the right to make copies. So you can say alright, you are not allowed to copy this work unless you meet these conditions, such as ensuring that other people are allowed to make copies or to modify the work. Patents are totally different. Patents are just a restriction over the implementation of the idea. And so it doesn’t matter whether you have seen it before, you can’t make your own implementation of something, it is no defense that you have never even heard of the patent before. So it is a massive threat to software freedom because at any point, something that you wrote on your own to be able to use as free software could be taken away by some company or individual who has got a patent over it. So they are very fundamentally different areas of law. So lumping them together is not a good idea.
Slashdot: Copyright is pretty easy to tell who holds it and whether you have the right to copy something.
Don: Yes, that is true. I mean there can be more complicated questions when it gets down to the nitty gritty of whether a particular work is derived from the other, like, oh they only took such and such code and that code is actually kind of functional so it is not actually copyrightable or something but in general, yeah, it is a lot easier, there is no way to know whether you are violating a patent.
Slashdot: You can’t really have a submarine copyright?
Don: Yeah, there is no submarine copyright. It is either you’ve seen another work and you are copying it and therefore you know, as the person who is doing the copying that you are doing it, or you are not copying at all. Whereas with patents, you have no idea. There is no way for any person to search and find all the thousands of patents out there that could affect any one thing that you are doing.
Slashdot: Now I want to switch gears a little bit, and bring us back to something, you are here in Seattle, as I am filming this, to talk a little bit in part about certain treaties that are either in negotiation or expected to come down the pike soon.
Don: So here at the SeaGL today, I have been talking about international trade agreements I talked a whole lot about the Trans Pacific Partnership of TPP it is the big one right now because we have a very limited amount of time left before this is going to potentially pass into law. We are talking 90 days, maybe the end of the year, that we are going to be stuck with all sorts of new restrictions, or old restrictions being spread to other countries.
Slashdot: What is the thing that people can do right now both to find out about and if what they find is what they don’t like, work to somehow change the outcome?
Don: So the FSF right now is working with a whole bunch of other organizations that are fighting back against TPP and other trade agreements like it. We are still at the moment putting together the strategy of what exactly is going to happen over the next couple of weeks. But the biggest thing that people can do is they can sign up for our mailing list, the Free Software Supporter, if they go to fsf.org/fss they can check out the mailing list, get on it and keep up to date on everything that is happening, when it comes to TPP as well as other software freedom related issues.