Open source politics are 'American as apple pie'

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
Written by Andrew Donoghue, Contributor

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.

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