[Fsfe-ie] Wall Street Journal: How Hartmut Pilch, Avid Computer Geek, Bested Microsoft

tmh tmh1 at eircom.net
Fri Sep 15 14:42:08 CEST 2006


How Hartmut Pilch,
Avid Computer Geek,
Bested Microsoft

Foe of Software Patents,
He Prevailed With Europe;
Next, a Court Battle
September 12, 2006; Page A1

BRUSSELS -- A proposal here to create a new European patents court has
the support of *Microsoft* Corp., *Siemens* AG and many other giants of
Western industry. But can it survive an attack from Hartmut Pilch?

A 43-year-old linguist from Munich, Mr. Pilch speaks Chinese, Japanese
and an artificial language called Lojban intended to eliminate ambiguity
and promoted by some programmers. He is the unlikely leader of a
movement of self-styled computer geeks out to sink a patents plan they
say would stifle software programmers.

"Patents on software mean any programmer can be sued at any time," says
Mr. Pilch, a simultaneous translator who writes computer programs for
his own use in his leisure time.

In July last year, heeding appeals posted on the Web site of Mr. Pilch's
lobbying group, about 200 programmers descended on the European
Parliament in Strasbourg, France, waving signs demanding the right to
freely exchange computer code. "U.S. Software Patents Go Out," read a
banner, in English, held aloft by two young Frenchmen.

The Parliament was poised to approve a law extending American-style
software patents to Europe, the most lucrative consumer market outside
the U.S. A technology industry group had hired a boat to cruise the
river outside Parliament with a banner urging the lawmakers on. The
programmers rented canoes and paddled out to the boat to unfurl their
own banner: "Software Patents Kill Innovation." The president of the
Parliament later called the incident a "naval battle."

The unhappy result for the big technology companies: A panicky
Parliament suddenly backed off a law the industry giants had spent
several years and millions of euros lobbying to enact. "It was the sheer
volume and number of people," said Parliament member Sharon Bowles of
Britain, a patent attorney and industry ally. The surprise winners: U.S.
software companies *Red Hat* Inc. and *Sun Microsystems* Inc., the only
large companies that had taken public stands against the software
patents law.

Today, the battle has shifted to an effort to create a special patents
court that would handle appeals cases from all over Europe. Companies
like Microsoft support the idea in large part because many national
courts currently reject software patents, bucking rulings by the
European-wide patent office.

Mr. Pilch wants to maintain the antisoftware patent status quo, and so
do the European programmers and students who belong to his group, the
Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure. Known as FFII, the
organization is committed to the idea that basic computer language
should be as free as human speech.

Mr. Pilch calls his mission vital to keeping Europe free from the
lawsuits over digital rights that he claims increasingly hamper
innovation in the U.S. Software around the world already is adequately
protected from theft by copyright laws, he says.

Mr. Pilch's opponents liken FFII to a bunch of communists who don't want
companies to profit from what they create. "They do sound closer to Karl
Marx than Adam Smith," said Mark MacGann, executive director of the
European Information & Communications Technology Industry Association,
which represents *Philips Electronics* NV, *SAP* AG, Microsoft and more
than 70 other companies backing software patents.

Mr. Pilch counters: "That's not true. I want to make money, too." He
admits, however, that he became so absorbed in lobbying last year that
he forgot to bill clients in the small translation business he operates
out of a run-down office in Munich.

Mr. Pilch began FFII in 1998, as little more than a Web site. As news
spread, he began getting small donations from like-minded programmers
and small businesses. His growing cadre of volunteers, however,
struggled to remember the Lojban words, such as "Cnino" ("news") and
"Penmi" ("events"), that Mr. Pilch used to name FFII email lists.

"It would have been easier just to call them 'news' and 'events,' " says
German university student Andre Rebentisch, who helps administer the
lists. Still, more than 200 people eventually registered to help
maintain FFII's member-edited site.

In 2002, the European Commission, the executive arm of the European
Union, proposed the law that drew FFII's ire. It aimed to elevate the
European Patent Office and its pro-software patent policies over the
national courts. The EU's argument: A simpler, more unified patent
system would make Europe's economy more competitive. Mr. Pilch's FFII
put out a statement saying the proposal "paves the way to a global
control of the information society by multinational -- mostly U.S."
technology companies.

In April 2004, as the debate heated up, several hundred FFII
demonstrators marched around European Union offices in Brussels in
yellow "No Software Patents" T-shirts. They hoisted banners slamming
Microsoft. Some demonstrators wore Che Guevara-style berets meant to
symbolize a revolution against the Redmond, Wash., company's dominance
of software markets. A Microsoft spokesman declined to comment.

Buoyed by $61,000 in grants from the Open Society Institute, the
philanthropy of billionaire George Soros, FFII sent an army of students
to lobby EU lawmakers. "Sometimes they would just burst in the door and
demand to see you," says Ms. Bowles, the pro-patent member of
Parliament. "Some of them didn't seem to understand the concept of
making an appointment."

Mr. Pilch spent so much time lobbying that he began showing up exhausted
for his day job in Munich. Japanese and Chinese clients were furious,
says his Chinese-born wife, Wang Tao. Because he was forgetting to bill
for his work, money was tight. The couple's two small children hardly
ever saw him. "The marriage almost broke up," Ms. Wang says.

The grass-roots show of force worked. At the 2005 meeting in Strasbourg,
pro-industry members of Parliament abandoned the proposed software law.
"They produced a whole movement," said German Parliament member
Klaus-Heiner Lehne, who led the unsuccessful push for the law. "Industry
was sleeping."

FFII has reorganized to fight the proposal for a patent court. Prodded
by his wife, Mr. Pilch has ceded day-to-day control of the group to
Pieter Hintjens, owner of a small software business. Mr. Hintjens, a
Belgian, was elected president at an FFII board meeting and keg party in
Brussels last November, which, he says, "lasted until the beer ran out."

In July, the EU held a hearing in Brussels on the new patent court and
related proposals. FFII activists packed the room, applauding loudly
when speakers criticized the court. His group still is short of cash,
Mr. Hintjens says. But he believes the movement has an asset even more
vital than money: "a burning, true, almost religious conviction that we
are right."

*Write to *Mary Jacoby at mary.jacoby at wsj.com <mailto:mary.jacoby at wsj.com>^1

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