May 14, 2007

Awards and Moglen mark Red Hat Summit finale

Author: Joe Barr

The third annual Red Hat Summit in San Diego concluded on Friday with a half-day schedule of sessions capped off by the presentation of the first annual Innovation Awards. I missed the awards ceremony in favor of a one-on-one interview with Professor Eben Moglen, during which I learned the secret of how to change the world.

The Innovation Awards were presented to six Red Hat customers in six categories: Red Hat/JBoss Deployment, Service-Oriented Architecture Implementation, Increased ROI, Ecosystem, Emerging and Leading Edge Technologies, and Innovation in Government. The winners, in the same order, were DST Health Solutions, Warner Music Group, ProQuest CSA, McKesson Provider Technologies, Comcast Corporation, and Hill Air Force Base.

Following his second presentation of his talk on the status of GPLv3, Professor Moglen sat down with me for an exclusive interview. We discussed his departure from the Free Software Foundation; his personal history with Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel; the battle with Microsoft over its patent agreement with Novell; his history with free software; and what he would like for his students, for programmers, and even for reporters on the fringes of media corporations to learn about how to change the world.

During the interview, Moglen made clear that his recently announced departure from the board of the Free Software Foundation was not the result of a rift between himself and FSF founder Richard Stallman, or of any conflicts over the next version of the General Public License. Moglen said that "the Free Software Foundation needs young people on its board.... They need to inherit the foundation, and Richard is 54 years old, and he needs to think about those questions too."

Moglen alluded to a new issue of Fortune Magazine that would include interviews with Brad Smith, himself, and others focusing on the conflict between Microsoft and free software. Moglen and Smith met while they were clerking for judges in the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. Moglen, a programmer prior to earning both a law degree and a Ph.D. in history, was the first to bring a personal computer into the court offices. Not caring much for DOS, he ran DESQview, and in fact introduced it to Brad Smith, who clerked for another judge in the same court, and became the second clerk there to use a personal computer.

The two followed their own careers and found themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum: Smith with Microsoft and Moglen with Stallman and the FSF. But that adversarial position did not rekindle their acquaintance. Moglen feels that is because Microsoft felt that to engage in conversation with him and the FSF would lend the organization more credibility than the company felt it deserved, this in spite of the fact that Moglen routinely conversed with counsel for most other corporations in the IT world.

Now, faced with the terms of the soon-to-be-released version 3 of the GPL, Moglen says the two men may be put on "more equal footing." In fact, Moglen and Smith have already met face-to-face to discuss the patent issue and what the FSF intended to do about it.

Moglen said:

If I had predicted in the first week of the Microsoft-Novell deal that come this spring Microsoft would be throwing SLES coupons out of airplanes, nobody would have believed me. But it is perfectly clear why they are doing it, and it is perfectly clear that they made a plan to do it at the instant they saw what was going to happen in GPLv3, and the reason they saw what was going to happen in GPLv3 was because I told them.

This game was not played out as a secret. I went to Microsoft in the very early days of the deal and I said, "Here's what is going to happen, and here's why I therefore think that the patent part of this deal is not worth keeping. The other parts of this deal are totally unexceptionable to the Free Software Foundation, and to my other clients, and to the community as a whole. And we would not only be willing to say that, we would be willing to welcome the deal. The patent part of the deal is excessively destructive of peace in the community, and it won't get you what you want, because I can change the rules which apply to the facts, after you have made the facts."

But Microsoft has elected a simple strategy, which unfortunately won't work. They are continuing to execute it as though it will work, and then GPLv3 will go into effect, and then all this tossing coupons out of airplanes will turn out to have been a waste of time.

Later in his legal career, Moglen clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and it was from him that he learned the secret of how to change the world. Moglen said:

If I had gone to work for Thurgood Marshall and he had turned out to be God, that would have been bad news, because then you would have to be God to change the world. But he wasn't God. He was a man. He was an ordinary lawyer who put his pants on one leg at a time. He had strengths, he had weaknesses. But he knew how to change the world, and the question was, "What does he know that I don't know, as a 25-year old wet-behind-the-ears kid." He knew the two things you have to do to change the world. There are only two of them. You have to know exactly what you want, and you have to know exactly how to get it.

That's it. That's all it takes. You have to know exactly what you want and you have to know exactly how to get it. He knew those two things. If you know those two things, and you're willing to put your life behind it to do it, that's the lesson, and I want law students to learn it, and I want programmers to learn it, and I want guys at the edges of media empires to learn it. Because we can change the world, if we know exactly what we want, and we know exactly how to get it. We can do it.

Red Hat may have taken a couple of body blows this past year, with the assault by Oracle and the spectre of the Microsoft-Novell deal, but there were no signs of distress over either event at the Summit. In fact, "Unfakeable Linux" T-shirts were for sale in the Summit store, a mild mockery of Oracle's Unbreakable Linux branding. As Matthew Szulik pointed out in the press round-table on Day 2, Red Hat sees those events as a validation of the market: there is money to be made in this space.

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