Open source politics are 'American as apple pie'

Open source politics are 'American as apple pie'

Summary: Eben Moglen, professor of law at Columbia Law School, says that open source is a fundamentally American concept, contrary to the view promoted by Microsoft and others


The politics of open source are not anti-business or anything to be ashamed of, but a return to America's inventive roots after a period dominated by innovation-stifling monopolies.

That was the bold claim made by Eben Moglen, professor of law at Columbia Law School, speaking at Red Hat's annual user summit on Thursday in Nashville, Tennessee.

Moglen, who is also the founding director of The Software Freedom Law Center, was largely preaching to the converted when he made the remarks at the open source company's second annual user conference.

Far from being communist or anti-business, as some proprietary companies have claimed, the politics of open source go to the roots of what made America great — the ability for individuals to capitalise on their own innovations, said Moglen.

"The actual politics are very American — they are not scary, but as natural as apple pie. The free software solution is a return to the traditional result of personal ingenuity. It's freedom to invent, not reinvent — not invent over again something someone else had invented and locked up, but invent in the way that inventing was done in the great spurt of 19th century inventiveness."

In 2005, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates argued that people who wanted to reform the laws around intellectual property rights were "communists". This sparked a lively debate, including a rebuttal from free software advocate Richard Stallman.

Moglen, who has a Ph.D from Yale and has worked as a designer of advanced programming languages at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center, said there has been a general reluctance to discuss the political ideas at the roots of open source.

"There was a feeling that if the politics of open source were talked about then it would be scary and business would flee," he said. "People spent good money creating that idea. If you're a Microsoft licensee then it was your money that they spent. The revolution was about protecting users rights. It never said it was against anyone's business."

Several other speakers took part in the conference, including Dr Alfred Spector, chief technology officer of IBM, but Moglen's was the only speech to win applause mid-way through and an extended ovation at its conclusion.

"We are having an immense spurt of invention. We are producing stock value for the society that seems to be coming out nowhere, but actually it is coming out of the basic American idea of individual invention," he said. "Something was holding back that growth. Monopoly was doing what you would expect it to do, but it has been removed and inventiveness has flourished."

Moglen is currently engaged in developing the GNU General Public License (GPL) version 3. The final GPL 3 licence is expected to be released by spring 2007. There has already been some discussion around what changes may be included. It is expected to offer improved compatibility with other free software licences and improved internationalisation.

Other possibilities include an anti-DRM clause, a patent retaliation clause and a clause to force Web companies to publish the source code of any GPL-licensed software that they are using for commercial services.

To read a recent full interview with Moglen click here.

ZDNet UK's Ingrid Marson contributed to this report.

Topics: Apps, Software Development

Andrew Donoghue

About Andrew Donoghue

"If I'd written all the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people - including me - would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism."

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Andrew Donoghue is a freelance technology and business journalist with over ten years on leading titles such as Computing, SC Magazine, BusinessGreen and

Specialising in sustainable IT and technology in the developing world, he has reported and volunteered on African aid projects, as well as working with charitable organisations such as the UN Foundation and Computer Aid.

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  • The statement that "open source is a fundamentally American concept" is ridiculous and entirely out of character for Eben Moglen.

    For centuries, open source methodologies and politics have prevailed in academia, from the times of the library of Alexandria to the scientific golden age of the Middle East and onwards.

    In direct context, the Linux kernel was written by a Finn, not an American, although credit is due to Richard Stallman and his work some years earlier. There's no doubt that Linus' work was pivotal in the acceptance of open source, especially if you choose to label RMS' work primarily as "Free Software" and not "open source".

    Look at international figures for the acceptance of open source: Europe has always been ahead of the States in terms of adoption, from home computers to government-wide open source aquirement schemes.

    Come on, Eben! This article is a complete slap in the face to everyone outside of America and it marginalises your philosophy in the eyes of the rest of the world.

    I imagine that this is the kind of self-important attitude that makes people turn against the US and its people. Totally gratuitous and insulting; the kind of sentiment I would not expect from a leading figure in open source.
  • Well, at least a *UK*-based site is willing to grant me diplomatic immunity in my own country...
  • Hey, cut him some slack. He's an American doing a keynote speech to Americans. Plus, presenting the situation in this way offers a way clearer rebuttal to Microsoft's 'commie' cooments.
  • I think you've misread Eben's comments. By "American", he did not mean that it is American in _origin_, only that it is in accord with American _ideals_. I believe he meant it in much the same way that one might say, "Singapore is more American than America", meaning that the cultural qualities that distinguish America are even more pronounced in Singapore.