Let's Settle the Mono Debate: Page 3

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Putting aside the rhetoric and the biases, the purpose of free software is to ensure that users have full control over their computers. Software encumbered by patents undermines that goal, because the patent-holder can demand at any time that use of the software must stop. Therefore, any software whose status is doubtful should not be used until its status is clarified. In Richard Stallman's words, it is "a gratuitous risk."

Who developed or supports the software, or what they might do with it does not matter; free software cannot guarantee users' rights by endorsing applications whose status is undetermined. The issue is really as simple as that.

Two Potential Solutions

The two sides in the Mono controversy seem far too entrenched to move beyond rhetoric and look for solutions. Most of the time, they cannot even stay focused on the legal concerns.

To its credit, Boycott Novell posted some time ago a list of alternatives for those who want to avoid using Mono. Several people have also given instructions on how to remove Mono from GNU/Linux for those who are interested.

However, proposals to make the use of Mono optional, or even to move its packages to repositories clearly labeled as non-free have been less successful, largely because they are resisted as unnecessary by pro-Mono developers. Proposals to stop using Mono altogether are even greater non-starters, because naturally developers do not want to abandon their efforts, especially when the issue is uncertain.

But these are short-term solutions. What is needed are concerted efforts to determine Mono's status once and for all so that nobody has to waste any more time with pointless debate.

While Mono developers might complain that such efforts would distract from their work, gaining the knowledge would be far more useful than the endless and unvarying debate that distracts them now. Similarly, if anti-Mono advocates want to retain credibility, I do not see how they can resist such efforts without revealing themselves as people who prefer posturing to action.

Exactly how to determine Mono's status would probably take some discussion. However, I can think of two positive steps that both camps could support.

First, we need a competent legal opinion about Mono. The closest we seem to have is that of Bradley M. Kuhn of the Software Freedom Law Center, who recently argued that the best way to avoid patent concerns is to avoid technologies like Mono whose status is uncertain. That is sensible, so far as it goes, but is unlikely to be accepted by the pro-Mono camp.

Moreover, as far as I know, no one has done a detailed legal analysis of Mono in particular. Is the possible patent encumbrance a serious threat, or an imaginary one? Could the patents behind Mono be challenged if necessary? These are questions that the Software Freedom Law Center, whose expertise and neutrality are unquestionable, would be ideally suited to tackle.

Second, if permission to use the patented core of Mono is really to be had for the asking, then ask for it. The request should not come from one person, because one person is too easy to ignore. Nor should it be made by a single project, because other projects would be unprotected.

Instead, those interested should petition a larger organization to intervene. The Linux Foundation would be ideal, since it has had previous dealings with Microsoft.

Other concrete steps are probably possible, but these two alone would be huge steps forward. Once they were completed, the community would at least know for better or worse what the situation is and could discuss what to next. Right now, all we can do is speculate.

Or have both camps reached the stage where they would rather bicker pointlessly than take positive action? I really hope they haven't, but watching the events and discussion of the last few months, I sometimes have to wonder.

ALSO SEE: The Agony of FOSS Branding

AND: The GNU/Linux Desktop: Nine Myths

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Tags: Linux, Microsoft, Novell, Mono

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