Free software's white knight

Free software's white knight

Summary: 'I live in a world where software has freed me,' says Eben Moglen, explaining his commitment to software freedom

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Eben Moglen, the longstanding legal counsel for the Free Software Foundation, became interested in computers at the age of 12. By 14 he was making money from writing computer programs. "I paid for my college education, a PhD in history and my law degree on the proceeds of being a programmer," he says.

Moglen spent several years coding for IBM, before turning away from the IT industry to become a lawyer. He worked as a law clerk for both the New York District Court and the US Supreme Court before joining Columbia Law School in the late 1980s, where he still works as a professor of law and legal history.

While working at Columbia, he tackled his first major legal case relating to software freedom. Moglen explains that while "trawling a bulletin board" in the early 1990s he came across Pretty Good Privacy, the email encryption program written by Phil Zimmerman. Moglen was impressed with the software, but realised that Zimmerman was exposing himself to potential legal issues, as US legislation restricted the export of cryptographic software.

"I wrote an email message to him [Zimmerman] saying 'Congratulations, you're going to change the world but you're also going to get into a shit-load of trouble. When you do, call me'," says Moglen. "I was just two weeks ahead of the police," he adds.

The US government accused Zimmerman of violating US regulations by publishing the PGP software on the Internet. Moglen helped Zimmerman pro bono, and eventually the government dismissed the case.

It was while he was working on the Zimmerman case that Moglen was contacted by Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, who was also in need of legal help. Moglen again offered to do the work for him for nothing.

"I said to him, 'I use Emacs every day, so it will be a long time before you run out of free legal help.'," says Moglen.

Initially, Moglen was spending about a fifth of his time doing legal work for the FSF, although this increased over time. But, he points out that the time he has given is no different to the time that many free software developers have given to improve programs.

"I was giving him the time because it was something that needed to be done. Some of the work could only be done by a lawyer, some could only be done by Richard, and some could only be done by programmers. There were not as many lawyers willing to work on what needed doing for nothing than programmers," he says.

As well as legal work for the FSF, Moglen now works with a number of other free software projects through the Software Freedom Law Center, which he helped launch in February 2005. He is also a director of the Public Patent Foundation, an organisation that aims to limit the abuse of the United States patent system.

Eben Moglen seated
Eben Moglen at his desk, in the Software Freedom Law Center

ZDNet UK spoke to Moglen last week about the work he is doing with the Law Center, his plans for expansion, and his philosophy on software freedom, and you can read the interview on the next few pages.

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Topics: Apps, Software Development

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