Q&A: Open-source backer Eben Moglen says software a 'renewable' resource

He's so serious about open source that he's never used Windows or the Mac OS

As a lawyer, law professor and software programmer, Eben Moglen is passionate about technology, software and user freedom. A former board member of the Free Software Foundation and the founder, president and executive director of the Software Freedom Law Center in New York since 2005, Moglen has worked to protect and advance open source and free software. Moglen, 48, is a Connecticut native who grew up in Manhattan and began programming for pay at the age of 13. Eventually, he worked as a developer at IBM to put himself through college and law school. A longtime friend of free software advocate, Richard Stallman, Moglen recently talked with Computerworld about his work, his belief in open source and what he sees as the changing future of software in the world economy.

Excerpts from that interview follow:

Eben Moglen

Eben Moglen How did you get so passionate about free and open-source software? When I went to law school in the fall of 1980, I thought that I was in all likelihood, like my mother, going to be a university professor. I didn't think I was going to be either a practicing lawyer or a practicing programmer. I also thought, however, that the technical environment around me was changing in unfortunate ways. I believed then as a technical matter -- and I still believe -- that the linguistic interaction between human beings and computers afford human beings better ways of knowing and solving problems. [In the early 1990s, after Stallman heard of Moglen's work] he got in touch with me to tell me that he had a legal problem that he needed some help with. Stallman, knowing I was available to do that sort of work for him for free, sent me some more work to do. And I realized that he had the best listening post on the planet. And everybody who had problems concerning the technical embodiment of control or freedom, everybody who had an interest in the philosophy of freedom in technology, they all knew one e-mail address [Stallman's], and I realized that if he forwarded to me everything that to him seemed to need a lawyer's attention, I would be able over time to gain a really thorough knowledge of what needed doing.

This was the journey -- from IBM to developing software to dealing with legal issues -- that brought you to your present work? Yes. The skills I acquired as a lawyer, as a historian, as a programmer -- they came together in doing this work. The issues about software were then as they are now, merely one layer in a layer cake. They are a crucial layer because the network that we live in is made out of software. But the network itself, the growing interconnection of people in society, the issues of privacy as secrecy, privacy as anonymity and privacy as autonomy were all crucial -- as was the question of how to save software from the harm done to it [by] excessive privatization.

What's the biggest danger to open-source software today? On the one hand, there's still a locust of resistance. Microsoft still maintains strongly the view that its business model, which depends upon concealing source code from users, is a viable and important and necessary model. And as long as a company that sells a billion dollars a week in software is fundamentally still trying to [fight] the free way of doing things, Microsoft remains a very dangerous party. But Microsoft, too, has now fundamentally recognized that there is not another generation left in the proprietary software idea and [it is] trying to move to a world in which it can leverage the remaining value of its monopoly in a world of mixed free and unfree code. As Microsoft begins to move itself away from being the primary partisan of unfreedom, the second most important partisans of unfreedom slot into place and they are the owners of culture, the Disneys and the other major movie studios who have a great deal of image-making authority in the world -- and a great deal to lose from the obliteration of their distribution mechanisms.

To you and others in the free and open-source software communities, that view might make sense. But proprietary software companies are out to sell goods; they may not want to hear about radical ideas that could put them out of business. How do you get them listen? Possibly, the difficulty you are having is too quick a diagnosis about what businesses need. The fundamental theory that I believe has to do with the benefits of what I think of as 'copyleft capitalism' [making a program or other work freely distributable, as opposed to restricting it via a copyright]. The primary desire that businesses have is for control over their own destinies, for avoidance of autonomy bottlenecks that put the fate of their business into the hands of someone else. The difficulty that they experience, that they call vendor lock-in, or noninteroperability, is a difficulty which is really a businessman's equivalent of Stallman's frustration at unfreedom. They are essentially the same recognition: If I don't control my technology, it will control me. Stallman's understanding of that proposition and Goldman Sachs' understanding of that proposition needn't be as far apart as one might think. It is true that Stallman's goal in life may not be making money and that Goldman Sachs may choose to define itself as an entity which is held together by the desire to make money. The desire to maintain autonomy, the desire to avoid control of destiny by outside parties, is as fierce in both cases as it can get. The near death of IBM in the 1980s gave that organization a clear understanding of how to avoid having its destiny controlled by somebody who made software. And as you look at the ripples of this idea through the economy, you begin to understand why lots of people are going to take up this call.

Each [IT vendor] is left in a different place because they are different entities. One of the things that everybody now understands is that you can treat software as a renewable, natural resource. You can treat software like forest products or fish in the sea. If you build community, if you make broadly accessible the ability to create, then you can use your limited resources not on the creation or maintenance of anything, but on the editing of that which is already created elsewhere. We package them for your advantage, things you didn't have to make because you were given them by the bounty of nature.

So you're talking about changing the attitudes of traditional companies? Well, even their attitudes are perfectly OK. What's happening to all of these companies, no matter how discrepant their responses are, is that they are each coming to depend heavily in profit-making business on nonprofit supply chain [that uses open-source software]. They are each discovering that there are nonprofit, supply-chain elements that are crucial to profit-making success. Now in 20th century economic organizations, if you had discovered at General Motors that 30% of the value of each of your cars was coming from a nonprofit down the street, you'd have gone and bought the nonprofit.

So this nonprofit supply chain that's crucial to their success is basically open source and free software? Yes, and because of GPL and the copyleft, a large portion of that nonprofit supply chain is unpurchasable. You can't own it; it's a commons. It was designed to be a commons. If you've become dependent on a commons, for whatever role in your business, then what you need is commons management. You don't strip mine the forest, you don't fish every fish out of the sea. And, in particular, you become interested in conservation and equality. You want the fish to remain in the sea and you don't want anybody else overfishing. So you get interested in how the fisheries are protected. What I do is to train forest rangers ... to work in a forest that some people love because it's free and other people love because it produces great trees cheaply. But both sides want the forest to exist pristine and undesecrated by greedy behavior by anybody else. Nobody wants to see the thing burn down for one group's profit. Everybody needs it. So whether you are IBM, which has one strategy about the commoditization of software, or you're Hewlett-Packard, which has another, whatever your particular relationship to that reality is, everybody's beginning to get it. In the 21st century economy, it isn't factories and it isn't people that make things -- it's communities.

What about Microsoft and its occasional patent threats to Linux? My job has been preparing for those activities for more years than Microsoft has been preparing. I have been thinking about how their patent portfolio might be used against the free world since long before the bulk of the free world was my client. I have spent more time studying that problem than Microsoft has spent creating that problem. It doesn't keep me awake at nights but it keeps me at work during the day. If in the process of irreversible change, Microsoft launches its missiles, which other dying empires like the Soviet Union, have managed not to do, but if as a dying empire Microsoft launches its missiles, we will protect our clients. If they die without launching their missiles, it will be better for everyone.

Do you personally use much proprietary software today? No, none. I have never been a Windows user. I have never used the Macintosh OS.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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