October 11, 2001

Free Software leaders: We'll beat the proprietary system, but we need your help

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -

The Free Software model of developing software will eventually destroy the proprietary method, and you need to decide which side you're on. That was the message from the leaders of the Free Software movement during a conference in Washington, D.C., Wednesday.

"You can watch as the owners maneuver against some obviously very frightening problems," said Eben Moglen, lawyer for the Free Software Foundation, describing the what he called the desperation of proprietary software, music and movie companies. "But by and large the press, which responds largely to advertisers, doesn't show you what the other half is. We're the other half; we're the revolution. They get the press, we get to win."

Moglen joined Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software movement, and Tony Stanco, founder of FreeDevelopers.net, in a symposium about Free Software at the Cyberspace Policy Institute at George Washington University. While Stallman addressed the philosophical and historical foundations of Free Software, and Stanco addressed the economic impact, Moglen's political/legal perspective offered the boldest predictions for the future of the movement.

Moglen urged the crowd of about 200 to join the movement. "We are going to win," he said. "I don't know how long it's going to take, and how much blood is going to be spilled; that's not under our control. All we're doing is making stuff and giving it away. We're only doing it because we have to, because there isn't any other way to be a civilized human being in a world that can have everything if we just give it to them."

Immoral to keep knowledge from people

Moglen said the 21st century is defined by idea-driven products -- software, music, art, knowledge -- that have a fixed cost of development but little cost of copying and distributing. The cost to the creator of providing those products to the 100th person is no more than providing the products to the first person, he said.

"In that world, how is it moral to exclude anybody?" he asked. "There is no other moral side. There is no claim that excluding people from things is good, that depriving people from knowledge and culture and technical education and the opportunity to improve their lives and the world around them is good."

It often appeared as though the speakers were preaching to the choir, with the crowd made up of many Free Software developers, students, and some businesspeople. But Stallman and crew were challenged by some unbelievers during a Q&A session at the end of the afternoon-long conference, not so much in the form of philosophical questions, but with practical questions about how Free Software fits into the real world. Stallman and Stanco even got into an argument over the importance of Free Software developers being paid for their efforts. Stanco argued that it's necessary for developers to be paid to increase the number of Free Software programs available, while Stallman said the philosophy of freedom is more important than pay. It's nice if developers can be paid, he said, but plenty of good Free Software has been developed by volunteers.

History of Free Software

Stallman's speech included a lengthy explanation of why the operating system that many people call "Linux" should be called "GNU/Linux" and a history of his founding of the Free Software movement.

The community of programmers who shared information in the 1970s turned into a commercialized industry in the '80s, where you couldn't program without giving away your desire to cooperate to a proprietary system, he said. If Stallman had accepted the proprietary model, "I realized I'd have to look back on my career and say I'd spent my life building walls to divide people."

Stallman explained that his philosophy went beyond the freedom to use software to include the freedom to modify that program to suit your needs, the freedom to share that program with your neighbor, and the freedom to contribute back to the community as a whole. He said it makes no sense that after it's preached in kindergarten that it's good to share, adults are warned that sharing software or music is illegal. "What happens when they say sharing with your neighbor makes you a pirate?" he said. "They say sharing with your neighbor is the moral equivalent of attacking a ship."

Free Software compared to Open Source

Stallman also took time to separate Free Software from Open Source, saying that Open Source advocates tend to ignore the political, ethical, and social issues of software freedom in favor of pragmatism. While Open Source advocates argue that Free/Open Source software is of superior quality to proprietary software, Stallman said he's not sure that's always true; instead it's always morally superior.

"If you call your work Open Source, you're encouraging people not to think about the political, ethical, and social issues," Stallman said.

Audience member Guido van Rossum, author of the Python programming language, called on the Free Software and Open Source camps to work more closely together, prompting a smattering of applause from the audience.

Stallman answered that the two groups do often work together, but there remain large philosophical disagreements. "I don't think that Open Source is a bad thing; I don't want it to be abolished," Stallman said. "There is a risk we take when we omit discussion of freedom from public discourse too often. What we have, in fact, is that almost everyone is not talking about freedom almost all of the time. We're in danger of forgeting about it altogether."

Death to proprietary systems

But the harshest words of the day were reserved for proprietary companies, not the Open Source camp.

Stanco, a former securities attorney with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's Internet and software group, suggested proprietary software design, with competing companies continuously re-inventing the wheel, is inherently inefficient.

"[GNU/Linux] produced stable, robust software that competes with the world's largest software company," he said. "GNU/Linux did what IBM, AOL, Sun or any other company failed to do. The only explanation for this incredible feat is the efficiency of the Free Software model."

Stanco predicted software development will change radically, maybe taking a cue from book publishing industry, where independent contractors draw on each others' creations and contract with many competing publishers. Or it could be modeled after the legal system, where nobody owns the vast body of work, that software programmers would help their clients create specialized applications from the vast body of common software knowledge.

In response to a question about paying for software development, Moglen predicted that most software in the future will be developed by students "who do not care if they're getting paid because they're learning."

If all this sounds a bit communistic, the three speakers suggested that the current legal system, with laws protecting large software companies and content producers, and discouraging small creators, is much more damaging to the free market than Free Software.

Laws that protect only the big guys

Moglen's hour-long riff on the current political landscape took on Microsoft, the music and movie industries, the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which has been used to prohibit even the discussion of technologies that circumvent anti-copying methods, and the proposed Security Systems Standards and Certification Act, which would require proprietary copy-protection standards to be installed on every computing device. Proposals like the SSSCA show the desperation of the big software and entertainment industries, he added, but if they succeed, expect all kinds of other industries to demand similar protections.

Moglen said the DMCA and the SSSCA go way beyond traditional copyright law, which didn't outlaw people discussing how photocopiers were made or keep people in garages from building cheaper copying machines than Xerox could make. "Only a law that says the free market in ideas and technology is now under government control for the benefit of some campaign contributors and their business models can do that," he said.

Moglen called the SSSCA a proposal that "tries to decide how every box and program in society that handles copyrighted material and content is designed and implemented." The proposal would make it a potentially criminal violation to stray from the approved designs of the entertainment industry, he said.

"One of the things which is going to happen in the next 10 years is we're going to have a very significant conflict between statutes calling themselves copyright, which aren't, and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution," Moglen predicted. "That conflict is going to go on in courts, but I hope it won't mostly go on in the courts ... then we have lost our courage in our democracy. It should mostly go on by way of laughing out the range of the possible statutes that think in a free society, we can tell people how to build their products."

Moglen urged the audience to get involved, to fight efforts to twist the law into a protection only for large corporations.

"We are rapidly approaching a point where very powerful forces in American society feel it is necessary to tell us that we are not legally permitted to make things and give them away," he said. "The idea of prohibiting our form of invention, our form of education, our form of freedom of thought is on the public agenda in the strongest way, supported by some of the most influential and profitable organizations in American society at a time when influence is measured by the ability to give money to the people who make laws."

"Against that, the proper remedy is democracy."

Moglen predicted that the struggle between those who want to share information and those who want to hold tightly onto it will be be the most important political issue of the next 50 years. "We just happened to be standing in the intersection, doing our modest little thing when they tried to barrel a whole caravan of ownership for the 21st century down that same street," he said. "We're standing in the way, and if you don't show up pretty soon, they'll try to run the tanks right over us."

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