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February 27, 2004

Eben Moglen at Harvard [2:32 pm]

The transcript of Eben Moglen’s presentation at Harvard for JOLT a couple of days ago is available at GrokLaw. While, as Jonathan Z says, it was a bookend to the earlier visit by Darl McBride of SCO, it’s also a fundamentally important look at the notions of Free Software. I won’t pretend that there’s a simple excerpt that summarizes it, but I will give you a taste in the hopes that you’ll give it a read:

The goal of the Free Software Movement is to enable people to understand, to learn from, to improve, to adapt, and to share the technology that increasingly runs every human life.

The fundamental belief in fairness here is not that it is fair that things should be free. It is that it is fair that we should be free and that our thoughts should be free, that we should be able to know as much about the world in which we live as possible, and that we should be as little as possible captive to other people’s knowledge, beyond the appeal to our own understanding and initiative.

[...] If you think about it, it sounds rather like a commitment to encourage the diffusion of science and the useful arts by promoting access to knowledge.

In short, the idea of the Free Software Movement is neither hostile to, nor in any sense at cross-purposes with, the 18th century ambition for the improvement of society and the human being through access to knowledge.

The copyrights clause in Article 1 Section 8 is only one of the many ways in which those rather less realistic than usually pictured founding parents of ours participated in the great 18th century belief in the perfectability of the world and of human life.

The copyrights clause is an particular legal embrace of the idea of perfectability through access to and the sharing of knowledge. We, however, the 21st century inheritors of that promise, live in a world in which there is some doubt as to whether property principles, strongly enforced, with their inevitable corollary of exclusion — this is mine, you cannot have it unless you pay me — whether property principles best further that shared goal of the perfectability of human life and society based around access to knowledge.

[...] We are, as it happens, driving out of business a firm called the Santa Cruz Operation [sic] - or SCO Ltd. That was not our intention. That’s a result of something called the creative destruction potential of capitalism, once upon a time identified by Joseph Schumpeter. We are doing a thing better at lower cost than it is presently being done by those people using other people’s money to do it. The result - celebrated everywhere that capitalism is actually believed in — is that existing firms are going to have to change their way of operation or leave the market. This is usually regarded as a positive outcome, associated with enormous welfare increases of which capitalism celebrates at every opportunity everywhere all the time in the hope that the few defects that capitalism may possess will be less prominently visible once that enormous benefit is carefully observed.

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