Help me, Community! Thoughts, questions, comments?

Tagged as IP Law, Open Source

Written on 2007-07-27 16:58:22

Inspired by:

Moglen and O'Reilly at OSCON are coming from very different positions. Certainly Moglen is focused on his efforts on the GPLv3 granting Open Source another 10 years of safety with which they can acquire more permanent safety through public policy and patent reform. Moglen's accusations of Tim O'Reilly and the Open Source movement as being Web 2.0 blathering profiteers at this point is perhaps uncalled for but points towards an interesting difference. We might call what Moglen and Stallman are after a right to computation. They think people should be able to compute whatever they want, wherever they want, whenever they want, however they want. This doesn't mean they don't believe in strong encryption on data. This doesn't mean they don't believe in money in software. This means they think there's no reason that the software you use to manipulate your data should be out of your control and that it should be available to you from any computer at any time. O'Reilly et al see no reason that Open Source Software doesn't meet those requirements and are interested in the opportunities that really are inherent in web services. They see that as the next space to really advance the state of computing and user rights. "Your data, your software, anywhere" seems to be the idea.

The difference here is really that Moglen and Stallman are measuring progress in legal terms while the Open Source Movement is measuring progress in market terms. As Lessig said, Law is Code but intellectual property law is different the world over...and is nigh impossible to enforce with the advent of digitization and the web anyway. Thought has broken loose. The Free Software camp is deeply aware of the fact that they have created a new political form based around a new concept of property rights. That new political form has as it's goal empowering communities by lowering the barriers to contribution. This has led to a method of production more efficient than preceding methods which has caught the attention of industry and ascended to the world stage. Open Source is that method of production, that method of organization. But Open Source as a meme was designed to keep politics out of the discussion because the term "Free Software" wasn't selling well to corporations. By eliminating the communist-sounding rhetoric the Open Source meme has done much better in the corporate space. Centrally though we must keep in mind that Open Source succeeds because it lowers the barriers to contribution and fosters community. It increases the benefit for everyone involved. This is what Moglen is trying to remind us. And it is certainly important that we begin cementing some of these norms and protecting some unprotected aspects of the maturing "Free/Open" political model through public policy and reform. The legal codes must be prepared to defend us as well as the establishment they are presently geared toward.

Licenses are only a small part of this. It is thankful that Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) has grown important enough that industry leaders such as Google, IBM, Sun, Intel, etc are contributing to it and will defend it (legally and politically) from attack. It is not enough. The Open Source movement is less concerned with how to defend and advance the sociopolitical status of our model than they are with observing it's market effects. It has opened up new avenues in terms of how to work and the software industry is busy doing what it has always done, trying to figure out how to capitalize on improved methods. Though they may be Improved Methods for Achieving Deteriorated Ends. In America though we tend to measure progress through the market and that is not entirely misguided. As in Cass Sunstein's Infotopia the market has historically proven an excellent way to aggregate information. But it is being shown up by more decentralized methodologies that have arisen in the Information Age. Valuing Knowledge is a traditionally hard problem but it grows more important as our assets lean more and more towards intellectual property and further and further from capital invested and factories and so forth.

It may be acceptable for Moglen to serve as a shock to the Open Source ecosystem through venting at OSCON in O'Reilly's general direction, not that I believe his attacks were meant to be personal on anyone in the Open Source community. In fact, if anything I would characterize Moglen's acts as public lament. But while it may be appropriate for him to try to invigorate those at OSCON I am not sure that it makes sense for him to try to invigorate those at IBM. Perhaps Ubuntu or Red Hat but even this I'm not convinced of. At some point, IBM decided the Eclipse code it had invested $40 million dollars into would be more valuable if they gave it away for free. Why? Because that meant they got free additional developers to work on the project. What is our product now? It's not software, it's not knowledge, it's not collaboration. Our product is a community. We finally stepped beyond knowledge and material goods to deliver the asset of the individual. Our product is our people. That's the philosophy. We're just trying to find ways to improve discussion. Communities are the ones producing things and the more knowledgeable, passionate, interested people/parties we can involve in the discussion, the more valuable things said community can produce.
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