June 1, 2006

Day 2 keynotes at the Red Hat Summit

Author: Joe Barr

Nashville, Tenn. -- Eben Moglen's keynote address this morning on the second day of the second Red Hat Summit was a thing of beauty: the right man, with the right message, for the right audience. Not that there was anything wrong with the previous talks this morning -- if you like company marketing with a twist of geek.

Red Hat's chief marketeer, Tim Yeaton, kicked things off. Not only did he extol the virtues of Red Hat Linux, open source, collaboration, and innovation, he did so in marketing-speak. So did the three guys he brought on stage with him to make sure his messaging was hammered home. It was an hour filled with words and phrases like leveraging, agility, technology dimensions, security landscape, security ecosystem, democratizing availability, and driving-up up-time.

Dr. Alfred Spector, CTO at IBM, came next. He spoke more geek than marketing, but you could hear elements of boardroom-talk in his presentation. He made fun of himself -- and of several in the audience -- by describing how difficult it was today to get bright young people to enter the field of IT because it seems to be dominated by old men reminiscing about working on Unix 33 years ago.

He also kept to the themes of the importance of open source, collaboration, and innovation, while mentioning that IBM believes there is a place for open source and there is a place for closed software development as well. The thing I found most interesting about his talk was his mention of the fact that the chips powering Microsoft's Xbox and other devices come from an IBM fabrication plant run completely, 100 percent, on Linux.

Professor Moglen is a lawyer, and he looks and talks like a lawyer. He wore a beige suit, light blue shirt, and a light beige tie. He is not overly tall, slightly rotund, and sports a full but neatly trimmed beard. He is soft spoken, and speaks easily and gracefully, as you might expect a professor at Columbia to do. His message was not soft, however, but urgent. He reminded the crowd about the why of free software, about why it is needed, about the freedom it gives us, and how we can keep it.

He began by bringing up some of the bogeymen falsely associated with free software by those whose business interests are threatened by it: politics and profits. Much of the rest of his talk skewered, refuted, or demolished those mythical memes.

He mentioned the decor in the reception area at Red Hat, which he noticed during a visit there in 1999, not long after the company had gone public. He noted a plaque on the wall which read, "Every revolution begins as an idea in one man's mind." That stuck in his mind, he explained, because the historian in him liked the fact that someone still remembered Ralph Waldo Emerson well enough to quote him. Then too, he added, since he has spent the last 15 years of his life as the lawyer for the man responsible for the free software revolution, he liked the recognition given by the quote as well.

This crowd of Red Hat users -- mostly system admins, programmers, and IT managers -- may not think of what they are doing as being part of a revolution, but Moglen made that clear to them in his talk, saying, "It is, of course, a revolution, that's the first thing. It's a friendly revolution. You know. You're the beneficiary of it. It freed you."

He spoke primarily about freedom, and the American legacy inherent in free software. He reminded us that there was a day when the word "yankee" was not automatically preceded by the word "damn" or followed by the words "go home." In fact, he noted, it was once most often followed by the word ingenuity.

He also spent a lot of time discussing patents, and explaining why they were added to our legal system so that the world's brightest, most creative people, would move here. Today, however, Moglen says, "the patent system is an unbridled and unnecessary headache." He then went on to describe how patents stifle innovation and creativity today.

The talk about patents provided an excellent backdrop for his next topic, his work on GPL3, and why the most controversial elements of the license are required in order that in another 15 years, we can look back and see how well it has worked at preserving freedom from the threats posed by software patents and digital rights management, just as we can look back today and see how well it has done the same against the threats to freedom posed by copyrights.

At the end of his talk, Moglen got a nice round of applause. If a video of this speech is made available on the Red Hat site, or elsewhere, grab it and listen to it.

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