Subject: Re: Is free software innovative ?
From: Frank Hecker <>
Date: Tue, 12 Dec 2000 13:18:19 -0500

Bernard Lang wrote:
>    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.

Heh. We had a discussion on this subject over two years ago on this same
list. (In fact, it occasioned my first fsb post.)  See the message
thread with subject line "A few thoughts" beginning with

> Innovative means : containing stuff that could have been patented,
> according to a rather strict application of the novel and inventive
> rule.

Like others, I think you are at risk of taking too narrow a view of what
makes software innovative.  We were also proposing lists of innovative
software back in 1998, and trying to justify which products were
"innovative" and which were not; what I wrote then (and still believe)
is that "[the] benchmark of innovation is ... whether the software in
question [gives] rise to a recognizable new market space (with multiple
competing products and companies formed around those products) that did
not previously exist prior to the first product of that type appearing."

What I should have added, but didn't, is that innovation in this sense
in not necessarily technical innovation. Thus, for example, Multics was
technically innovative as an example of an interactive multiuser
operating system, and helped spawn the proprietary minicomputer market.
Unix was not radically technically innovative relative to Multics, but
the idea of a operating system portable to different hardware
architectures was definitely innovative, and led to the "open
standards"-based Unix workstation and server market. The Linux kernel
and associated libraries, utilities, etc., have minimal technical
innovations relative to traditional Unix, but were innovative in the way
they were licensed and developed, and these innovations led to the
active Linux-based hardware/software/services market we see today.

>    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):

To quote myself again, here are some examples of software products I
considered innovative (and still do): "spreadsheets (VisiCalc),
graphical web browsers (NCSA Mosaic), document processing systems a la
runoff/Scribe/TeX, WYSIWG word processors (Xerox Star?), 2-D and 3-D
computer-aided design software, relational databases, time-sharing
operating systems (Multics?), web search engines using web robots,
presentation graphics software a la PowerPoint, ERP software a la SAP
R3, software for engineering finite element analysis, computer animation
software, 'data mining' software, and software to do 'rational drug

In some of these cases a free software product (or public domain
product, or not-quite-free-but-with-source-available product) was the
initial product in the category or among the very earliest offerings
that helped define the category; examples include NCSA Mosaic (web
browser), Ingres/Postgres (relational and object-oriented databases),
Harvest (web search and robots), and various US government funded finite
element analysis programs. In other cases the innovative products were
proprietary, e.g., for the classic desktop trio of spreadsheet, word
processor, and presentation package.

Frank Hecker            work:        home: