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Lobbying for Linux

It's not every day that you find yourself talking to your MEP about Free Software; a day becomes even more unusual when an MEP's assistant starts to talk to you about happy penguins and GNU/Linux. But with a vote on software patents due in a matter of days, such strange circumstances go to the back of one's mind, as one fights for the right to develop software free of patents. A lot of coverage has been devoted to the software patents fracas, both in the USA and in the EU, and rightly so, but little is known about the lobbying process itself, nor how individuals can and should approach it. This article attempts to redress the balance.

First, a little about my circumstances. I am not a full-time experienced software developer, nor a professional lobbyist au fait with every aspect of the EU's legislative process. I am a student who has studied the EU a little, and who codes for the community and for money in his spare time. Until I travelled to Brussels, I had not even written a letter to my MEP on the issue of software patents (though I confess I have experience in lobbying MPs in the UK). In other words, anybody with a vague understanding of the issue, and with a few days to spare, can lobby for Free Software.

Getting there was a matter of getting a plane to Brussels, getting to the European Parliament, calling up a hacker who was already inside the building, and waiting for a friendly MEP's assistant to help us in. Once inside the building, we listened in on some briefings, looked through some more paperwork, and then set off to meet an MEP.

Our first MEP was Robert Sturdy, a member of the UK Conservative Party, whose European coalition supports the legislation as it stands (at the time of writing). Sturdy, like many MEPs, wasn't in the building on the day, so we made an appointment with his assistant. We met over a cup of coffee, and began by trying to convince her that we had travelled to Brussels as individuals, and wanted to express our concerns, not those of an organisation we had been sent over by. Though the FFII had financed our trip, and we agreed with their views, MEPs are regularly lobbied by paid professionals, and are less likely to take heed of your personal concerns if they think you're just such a lobbyist.

Once convinced, I launched into my semi-prepared speech about why software patents were bad for me, focusing on personal aspects of the issue, and on aspects that touched Sturdy's own constituency (Cambridgeshire, a hub of the software industry in the UK). As we thrashed out arguments, and deployed ever more convoluted analogies, we gradually got a feel for the kinds of arguments that the assistant responded to the most, and those that didn't impress her at all, and honed in on these points.

Frustratingly, accusations that the proposed legislation would lead to the havoc experienced in the US, with the infamous one-click patents, were of little use. Though it is often said that the proposed legislation brings the EU in line with US legislation, it is in fact the intention of the EU to avoid the mess that US legislation has created by clarifying the matter. However, whilst they claim to want to avoid patents on such "inventions" as one-click shopping, the proposed legislation in fact legalises many such patents. Making this point to MEPs became our first priority, as many didn't seem to realise that the legislation was leading to exactly the kind of future its proponents claimed they wanted to avoid.

Once this point was established, we strove to make Sturdy's assistant understand why this was the case. As is widely documented, there is a difference between ideas based upon natural science that are manifested in physical inventions (e.g. a car, a pulley system) and ideas based upon theoretical sciences that are manifested in terms of information (e.g. music, software). Currently, EU legislation on patents precludes ideas based upon theoretical sciences to be patenting, preferring protection by copyright, but software is a special case, because it can be part of an invention in the main based upon the physical sciences. For example, one might invent a new robot that assembles equipment; that robot will require software to work, and current law makes it unclear as to whether or not the invention as a whole can be patented. The new EU law proposes, but fails, to allow such an invention to be patented whilst disallowing software itself to be patented.

Trying to explain such a complicated, technical distinction to an MEP's assistant who specialises in agriculture was an uphill struggle. What made it easier was that the assistant was friendly and fun to talk with, and that she gave us forty five minutes of her time. This came as quite a surprise, given that we had arrived unannounced to talk about an issue that she only had a short time to prepare herself for.

Reactions to this point varied; Sturdy's assistant broadly agreed with us, once understood, but she thought that the legislation could avoid the problem by defining a category of un-patentable inventions that would include pure software. Our approach was to make this distinction in the core of the legislation to avoid confusion, but it seems that MEPs are more comfortable cleaning the legislation's uncertanties up afterwards in footnotes. The second MEP's assistant we spoke to, the assistant to Avril Doyle, had been so inundated by correspondance on the subject that she had become completely confused. Avril Doyle is the representative for her national party on software patents, and so was a target of a lot of Irish letter writers; it seemed that so many divergent arguments had been made that her office was at a loss. What was sorely lacking in letters they had received was proposed ammendments and concrete alternatives, which immediately make clear what one is asking for. We passed on some ammendments tabled by the UEN group, and went on our way.

The final point that we drove home was that software patents are damaging. This was the hardest of all the arguments to make, because it depends upon an understanding of how software development differs from the development of cars, for example. After a few failed attempts at explaining how one bases a web site upon Apache, PHP, HTTP and various other potentially patentable technologies, we resorted to more obscure analogies. Though they were initially confusing, and poorly thought out, these worked quite well, as they got the assistants to think with us about what we were trying to say; it helped that they were quick to understand our strange abstractions. The impact of this argument was almost impossible to judge, since it didn't affect a particular passage of the proposed legislation, and so we could only hope that it informed the MEPs' decisions.

With each MEP, and each assistant, we developed a more coherent, streamlined approach. The first meeting was an amusing chat that took forty five minutes; by the last MEP, we were able to make our points within about twenty minutes. Reactions from MEPs and assistants were more consistent, however. Few really understood the issue of software patents; some openly admitted that they were confused by the whole issue, and were grateful that we had clarified it for them. None understood the nature of software development, nor the views of software developers themselves. Nonetheless, it was still possible to communicate both our concerns and potential solutions, even if it is impossible to really know the impact of our words.

What really made our day, and blew away all our expectations, occurred when we mentioned the word "Linux" to Sturdy's assistant; "ah, happy penguins!" she said, and our faces lit up. Admittedly, he knew about Free Software a little because she had recently graduated from Cambridge University and had friends who studied Computer Science, but this was interesting nonetheless. Knowledge tends to snowball, and so the ideas behind Free Software are already spreading, even if this process is still in its early stages.

As with a lot of legislation, MEPs have to rely on the work of their coalition's nominated specialists, and the views of concerned citizens, which leaves us at the mercy of these specialists, and ourselves. If every software developer in Europe were to write to, phone or visit their MEP, we may not convince every MEP of our views, but we might just win the vote. The linked up campaign, deploying online demonstrations, real demonstrations, letter writing and face-to-face lobbying has been hugely successful so far, but more work remains to be done before the vote. If you'd like to do more to protect the EU from software patents, there is plenty of work to be done.

This article is copyrighted by Tom Chance, 2003. It was published by Newsforge, and in Issue 39 of Linux User & Developer. There are accompanying photos that can be found here.