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


...a risk involved in writing computer programs.

Last year, the European Parliament rejected the software patent directive. Do you see this as a sign that the attitude toward software patents are changing?
[The rejection of the directive] was a great success in politicising what had until then been a niche subject. It was an announcement that patents is something that politics should be about — like transport, health and education.

Is there a change in attitude towards patents? I don't know yet. In 50 years from now, or 100 years from now, the ownership of ideas is going to seem repugnant and the patent system won't exist anymore. But that is going to require a confrontation of cataclysmic proportions, from people who right now don't know anything about patents.

Various people have accused the free software movement of being anti-capitalist, including Bill Gates. What's your response?
The idea that we are anti-capitalist is a stupid idea. Free software is not anti-capitalist. Capitalism now makes a great deal of money out of free software and it voluntarily pays us money to make, improve and lawyer for it.

Some people decided to make knowledge into property. That wasn't capitalism speaking; that was a greedy scam. There wasn't anything normatively acceptable about it. It contravened the freedom of speech and ideas. We didn't engage in it because it was excluding people from ideas.

This is an especially bad thing in the digital world. In the analogue world, excluding people makes sense as you've got to raise money to manufacture something — a book, or a tape. So you have to say to people, "this cassette tape costs a dollar to make, if you don't give me a dollar I can't make another one." In the digital world, nothing has a marginal cost. Once you make the first one you can make an additional million at no extra cost, so you should only have to pay that cost once.

People have referred to you as a dotCommunist. Do you see yourself that way?
I published an article in a magazine called The dotCommunist Manifesto,  which is different from calling myself a dotCommunist.

This paper is nothing more complicated than borrowing the Communist manifesto. Then everybody said, "he's a dotCommunist." When I wrote a piece, saying Anarchism Triumphant: Free Software and the Death of Copyright,  there are probably some people who said I'm an anarchist.

But writing an article doesn't make one any of those things. If I say "die gedanken sind frei" [a German song, that translates as 'thoughts are free'], I'm not becoming German, I'm just singing an old song, which says that thoughts are free and they belong to me.

Lastly, why do you think the FSF has been successful at spreading its philosophy?
The reason why our plans for freedom work better than other peoples' is that they include a sequence of activities — proof of concept, running code and the solicitation of partnership. First you make it, then it works, then you invite people to make it better.

Most of the people that have struggled for freedom have proposed a utopia — "I know of a place that's never existed, but if we go there it will be better." It turns out that as a mode of constructing freedoms there are problems with that method.

Topics: Apps, Software Development

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