The City of Munich has put its planned migration to Linux of 14,000 desktop PCs on hold due to concerns over software patents, the citys CIO said on Tuesday night.
The call for bids in the LiMux Project, as it is known in Germany, was due to begin last week. But on Friday, Green Party Alderman Jens Muehlhaus called for the city to examine the impact patents might have on the decision, in light of software patents legislation currently under consideration in the European Union.
Muehlhaus said a cursory examination of Munichs proposed client software had turned up conflicts with more than 50 European software patents. The fear is that a company holding one or more of these patents could issue a "cease and desist" order to the Munich government, effectively shutting down the citys computer systems or forcing the payment of licensing fees.
In response, the city decided to cancel the planned call for bids until the patent issue has been investigated, according to a statement from Munich CIO Wihelm Hoegner issued to the LiMux Project mailing list late on Tuesday.
Munichs actions are being closely watched as a bellwether for the fortunes of Linux in the public sector, in Europe and elsewhere. Following the citys initial strategic decision to migrate to Linux, a year ago, the City of Paris ordered its own investigation into a switch to open source. The city of Bergen in Norway recently decided to consolidate older Windows and Unix servers on Novell Inc.s SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 8. Other recent wins for Linux include the French Ministry of Equipment and Allied Irish Banks.
Munich recently completed a year-long feasibility study that found that the Linux operating system would be suitable for the citys needs but didnt take patent considerations into account. This was partly because software patent issues are not yet widely understood, according to consultant and developer Florian Mueller, who works with the German Green Party on software patent issues. "There has been a lack of awareness of this conflict," he said. "But with this decision it may be a turning point. On both sides of the Atlantic, we are starting to see an initial sensitivity to this issue."
On Monday, OSRM, a provider of open-source consulting and risk mitigation insurance, announced that the group has found that there are 283 issued—but not yet court-validated—software patents that could conceivably be used in patent claims against Linux.
The basis of last weeks warning by Alderman Muehlhaus was a cursory study by the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure, one of the chief organizers against software patent legislation in Europe. The Green Party is the only major European party that consistently opposes software patents, according to activists. Both the FFII and the OSRM studies underestimate the problem of software patents, according to Mueller, because they dont take into consideration that companies such as Microsoft acquire thousands of new patents each year.
Software patents are disallowed in Europe by a 1974 decision of the European Patent Convention, but thousands of computer programs have nevertheless been allowed patents, in a gray area of European law. Anti-software patent activists—including economists, computer scientists, developers and small businesses—argue that a proposed directive, "Patent law: patentability of computer-implemented inventions," would legitimize those software patents and open the floodgates to many others, as is already the situation in the United States.
Last year, members of the European Parliament added a series of amendments to the proposal, effectively limiting its scope. In May, however, the European Commission removed the amendments. It is this May version of the directive, headed for a vote by the EU Competitiveness Council in September, that the City of Munich believes may pose a threat to open-source software.
"Today, open-source software can do the job," said Mueller. "The question is if, three years down the road, companies like Microsoft will be able to limit what [open source] can do through software patents."
There are still opportunities for the European Parliament to alter the proposed directive. If it is approved by the Competitiveness Council this fall, it will pass to the parliament for a second reading, where alterations can be made. Any changes will, however, need a more substantial majority than there was at last years first reading, with any abstentions and absentees counting as "no" votes.