Note: This section is a political message from the League for Programming Freedom to the users of XGC. We have included it here because the issue of interface copyright is important to the GNU project.
Apple, Lotus, and now CDC have tried to create a new form of legal monopoly: a copyright on a user interface.
An interface is a kind of language — a set of conventions for communication between two entities, human or machine. Until a few years ago, the law seemed clear: interfaces were outside the domain of copyright, so programmers could program freely and implement whatever interface the users demanded. Imitating de-facto standard interfaces, sometimes with improvements, was standard practice in the computer field. These improvements, if accepted by the users, caught on and became the norm; in this way, much progress took place.
Computer users, and most software developers, were happy with this state of affairs. However, large companies such as Apple and Lotus would prefer a different system — one in which they can own interfaces and thereby rid themselves of all serious competitors. They hope that interface copyright will give them, in effect, monopolies on major classes of software.
Other large companies such as IBM and Digital also favor interface monopolies, for the same reason: if languages become property, they expect to own many de-facto standard languages. But Apple and Lotus are the ones who have actually sued. Apple's lawsuit was defeated, for reasons only partly related to the general issue of interface copyright.
Lotus won lawsuits against two small companies, which were thus put out of business. Then they sued Borland; they won in the trial court (no surprise, since it was the same court that had ruled for Lotus twice before), but the decision was reversed by the court of appeals, with help from the League for Programming Freedom in the form of a friend-of-the-court brief. We are now waiting to see if the Supreme Court will hear the case. If it does, the League for Programming Freedom will again submit a brief.
The battle is not over. Just this summer a company that produced a simulator for a CDC computer was shut down by a copyright lawsuit by CDC, which charged that the simulator infringed the copyright on the manuals for the computer.
If the monopolists get their way, they will hobble the software field:
Gratuitous incompatibilities will burden users. Imagine if each car manufacturer had to design a different way to start, stop, and steer a car.
Users will be "locked in" to whichever interface they learn; then they will be prisoners of one supplier, who will charge a monopolistic price.
Large companies have an unfair advantage wherever lawsuits become commonplace. Since they can afford to sue, they can intimidate smaller developers with threats even when they don't really have a case.
Interface improvements will come slower, since incremental evolution through creative partial imitation will no longer occur.
If interface monopolies are accepted, other large companies are waiting to grab theirs:
Adobe is expected to claim a monopoly on the interfaces of various popular application programs, if Lotus ultimately wins the case against Borland.
Open Computing magazine reported a Microsoft vice president as threatening to sue people who imitate the interface of Windows.
Users invest a great deal of time and money in learning to use computer interfaces. Far more, in fact, than software developers invest in developing and even implementing the interfaces. Whoever can own an interface, has made its users into captives, and misappropriated their investment.
To protect our freedom from monopolies like these, a group of programmers and users have formed a grass-roots political organization, the League for Programming Freedom.
The purpose of the League is to oppose monopolistic practices such as interface copyright and software patents. The League calls for a return to the legal policies of the recent past, in which programmers could program freely. The League is not concerned with free software as an issue, and is not affiliated with the Free Software Foundation.
The League's activities include publicizing the issues, as is being done here, and filing friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of defendants sued by monopolists.
The League's membership rolls include Donald Knuth, the foremost authority on algorithms, John McCarthy, inventor of Lisp, Marvin Minsky, founder of the MIT Artificial Intelligence lab, Guy L. Steele, Jr., author of well-known books on Lisp and C, as well as Richard Stallman, the developer of the compiler. Please join and add your name to the list. Membership dues in the League are $42 per year for programmers, managers and professionals; $10.50 for students; $21 for others.
Activist members are especially important, but members who have no time to give are also important. Surveys at major ACM conferences have indicated a vast majority of attendees agree with the League on both issues (interface copyrights and software patents). If just ten percent of the programmers who agree with the League join the League, we will probably triumph.
To join, or for more information, phone (617) 243-4091 or write to:
League for Programming Freedom 1 Kendall Square #143 P.O. Box 9171 Cambridge, MA 02139
You can also send electronic mail to email@example.com.
In addition to joining the League, here are some suggestions from the League for other things you can do to protect your freedom to write programs:
Tell your friends and colleagues about this issue and how it threatens to ruin the computer industry.
Mention that you are a League member in your .signature, and mention the League's email address for inquiries.
Ask the companies you consider working for or working with to make statements against software monopolies, and give preference to those that do.
When employers ask you to sign contracts giving them copyright on your work, insist on a clause saying they will not claim the copyright covers imitating the interface.
When employers ask you to sign contracts giving them patent rights, insist on clauses saying they can use these rights only defensively. Don't rely on "company policy," since that can change at any time; don't rely on an individual executive's private word, since that person may be replaced. Get a commitment just as binding as the commitment they get from you.
Write to Congress to explain the importance of these issues.
House Subcommittee on Intellectual Property 2137 Rayburn Bldg Washington, DC 20515 Senate Subcommittee on Patents, Trademarks and Copyrights United States Senate Washington, DC 20510
(These committees have received lots of mail already; let's give them even more.)
Democracy means nothing if you don't use it. Stand up and be counted!