BSA and FSF Clash Over European Interoperability Framework


Jessica Thornsby

BSA champions licenses that allow inventors to charge royalties, while FSF recommend software based on Open Standards.

The Free Software Foundation Europe have obtained a letter sent by the Business Software Alliance (BSA) to the European Commission, in which they urge the EC to remove Section 5.2.1 of the European Interoperability Framework.

The European Interoperability Framework (EIF) consists of recommendations which specify how Administrations, Businesses and Citizens communicate with each other within the EU and across Member States borders. The European Commission is currently in the process of revising the EIF, and the Free Software Foundation Europe has been pressing the EC to revise it in a manner that would show open standards a degree of preference, while the BSA has spent its time lobbying for proprietary standards.

In the letter, the BSA encourages the EU to avoid showing a preference for royalty/patent-free specifications, claiming that doing so would discourage companies from contributing innovations to standardisation. They disagree with the framework’s definition of an open specification, and point out that many “widely-deployed open specifications incorporate patented innovations that were invented by commercial firms.” Therefore, showing a preference for standards that are “freely implement(able)” will ultimately damage the innovativeness of Europe standards, in the BSA’s opinion.

The Free Software Foundation Europe have responded by pointing out that zero-royalty licensing can in fact include patented technologies in the standards – although, of course, no royalties can be claimed. They also believe that zero-royalty patent licensing policies will actually encourage participation in software standard-setting, and that standards, by their very nature, encourage innovation by stabilising the platform in question. The Free Software Foundation Europe questions the logic that preventing patented technology from entering standards, would be de-motivational to the innovator, as they are “already receiving an incentive through a patent” – do they really have that much more to gain by having that patent included in a standard?

So, what licensing policy does the BSA champion? In their letter to the EC, they present (F)RAND as the licensing policy that will encourage innovation by allowing inventors to charge a “reasonable fee” when their technologies are incorporated into specifications. The Free Software Foundation isn’t a fan, and views (F)RAND as detrimental to the cause of Free Software. Most “widely used” Free Software licenses do not allow inventors to impose additional conditions on downstream recipients, including such fees as described in the letter. This means that, for the Foundation, (F)RAND and free software are incompatible: “Zero-royalty means that if certain technologies are mandated by a standard, they must be available to everybody without requiring running royalties.” But, the crux of the BSA’s argument, is that with no royalties there is no motivation for inventors to contribute to standardisation.

The Free Software Foundation finish with a recommendation that the EC does not give “incumbent dominant companies an additional lever to maintain their control of the market” by endorsing (F)RAND licensing policies for software standards. They advise the EC to recommend software based on Open Standards – which they define as standards that “can be implemented and shared under different software licensing models.” BSA’s request is eerily similar: they recommend the Commission amend Section 5.2.1 to include an endorsement of (F)RAND, in order to encourage innovation within software standards.

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