" AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The free software foundation said on Tuesday it would start adapting rules for development and use of free software by including penalties against those who patent software or use anti-piracy technology.

Free software needs to be licensed under specific rules to guarantee that it can be freely studied, copied, modified, reused, shared and redistributed. The Linux operating system kernel is one of the best known examples of free software.

The most popular rule book, the GNU General Public License (GPL) developed by Richard Stallman, was developed 14 years ago, before big Internet shops and web services.

The license needs to be adapted to a world in which e-commerce firms like Amazon.com have patented 'one click ordering' which prevents software makers from freely using such a feature in their programmes, said the president of the Free Software Foundation Europe, Georg Greve.

"Software patents are clearly a menace to society and innovation. We like this to be more explicit," Greve said.

The idea is that if someone uses software patents against free software, that company or person loses the right to distribute that particular programme and use it in their product, he added.

Such a clause may have some impact, because many commercial companies have benefited from free software. The GPL is employed by tens of thousands of software projects, and companies and governments around the world use it in their software or services.

Such software runs on or is embedded in devices ranging from mobile phones, handheld computers and home networking appliances to mainframes and supercomputing clusters.


Others in the open source community were doubtful, and warned the clause may be "toothless".

"Someone who uses a patent against a piece of software will usually be a competitor and won't care about the right to distribute that particular program himself," said Florian Mueller, an intellectual property specialist who founded NoSoftwarePatents.com.

The European Union failed to adopt a new software law earlier this year, after a stalemate in the heated debate between advocates of free software and commercial companies which wanted more freedom to patent software.

Stallman will write a draft version of the new GPL by December, after which it will be evaluated and discussed by thousands of organisations, software developers and software users in 2006.

The draft version may contain a proposal to penalise those companies which use digital rights management (DRM) software which protects songs and films against piracy, and which is seen as an anomaly by the free software association.

"We're fundamentally opposed to DRM. We think it's a dead end for society," Greve said, adding all software should be free to use and that artists could be paid for their films and music by a general 'taxation' on Internet connections.

"Web access could come with a cultural flat fee," he said.

This position is expected to lead to a fierce debate.

"I can't imagine they really want to ostracize companies that use DRM. There are highly legitimate interests of copyright holders involved," said Mueller.

The efforts by the free software foundations in the United States, Europe, India and Latin America will be supported by a 150,000 euro ($188,300) grant from a Dutch not-for-profit Internet development association called NLnet.

The new GPL will also be adapted to address regional differences in law and language, Greve said.