Subject: Re: [linux-biz] Is free software innovative ?
From: Chris Rasch <>
Date: Tue, 12 Dec 2000 10:10:23 -0700

Bernard Lang wrote:

> Hi,
>    a common argument that I see against free software (and used as a
> justification to ignore free software when discussing software
> patenting) is that free software is not innovative.
>    Innovative means : containing stuff that could have been patented,
> according to a rather strict application of the novel and inventive rule.
> (not the USPTO garbage criteria)
>    Hence I would like to have a list of really innovative free
> software, and information on who paid for the development of the
> innovative part (if known):
>     private contribution,
>     supported by state/federal money,
>     supported by a company  (for what purpose/reason)
>     etc ...
>   If there is a document with such info, it is welcome.
>    This is really needed
>    examples I have in mind  (I may be wrong ... correct me
>       - if not innovative or inventive
>       - if facts are wrong
>       - or anything else
>     add more facts, if you want, keeping it short
>    - gzip : compression utility, privately developed
>    - html, http  first clients and servers : state funded, free caracter
>         lead to the development of the web
>    - zope : application server, company created to develop a service
>      market
>    - rpm : package manager, company developed for notoriety and free
>      product improvement
>    - OpenCascade: 3D modeling library for CAD/CAM, company developed
>      to create service market
>    - escritor: educational software, privately developed
>    - CAML : programming language, state funded  (France)
>    - SCILAB:  mathematical assistant, state funded  (France)
>         interestingly: the privately owned competitor relies heavily on
>         state funded labs for its improvement.
>    - GPG, cryptographic software, private development, then state funded
>    - QT, graphic library, company funded for products development
>    - ssh, security software, company funded (Nokia)
>   please add more ...  and criticize whatever is proposed
>    it has to contain original material ...  being just nice, useful,
> well programmed is not enough.
>    for example, I have no idea whether Linux contains new technology
> that could have been considered patentable.

You seem to be looking for software that is innovative in a strictly
technical sense, e.g. can be patented.  Yet many of the most important
innovations in an industry are not necessarily patentable in nature.  To
take an example outside the computer industry, Sam Walton remade the
retailing industry by creating "superstores"--stores with high volume, low
margin, and wide selection located in "less than prime" real estate.
GNU/Linux reimplements a 20+ year old API.  From a technical sense that
doesn't seem particularly innovative.   Yet the way in which RMS/Linus
re-implemented it seems quite socially innovative.

Also innovative to what degree?  Visicalc introduced a new way of
manipulating tabular data.  (Although I suspect spreadsheets in some form
existed prior to Visicalc--does anyone know?)  Modern spreadsheet programs
work in fundamentally the same way, yet have a wide variety of incremental
improvements and additions.  At what point do incremental improvements
become "non-trivial" innovation?

In any case, here's some suggestions:

-Freenet (anonymous, distributed file sharing, written by Ian Clarke, grad.
student presumably tax-subsidized)
-EMACS (all-in-one development environment, Richard Stallman, tax subsidized
initially, later supported by voluntary contributions, FSF/Lucid )
-gcc (C compiler, Richard Stallman, tax subsidized initially, later
supported primarily by company Cygnus)
-Tex (document publishing language, Donald Knuth, tax subsidized initially)
-ArsDigita Community System (integrated web development platform, Philip
Greenspun/ArsDigita, company supported development)
-AOLserver (web server, had threaded, persistent connections to database
back in 1995, NaviSource developed, later purchased by AOL--released open
source (MPL) in 1999)
-Mozilla (browser/development platform, Netscape/AOL-developed)
-Mosaic (browser, NCSA, tax-subsidized)
-Back Orifice 2000 (remote system administration, developed by Cult of the
Dead Cow, volunteer supported)
-Slashcode (news publishing system, Rob Malta and friends, Andover/volunteer
-X Windows (cross platform graphical windowing system, company/university