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Philosophies of copyright and law, and the new GPL v3

Groklaw posts the transcript of an excellent speech by Eben Moglen, one of the co-authors of the GPL v3 open source software license, a Professor at Columbia Law School in New York and the founder of the Software Freedom Law Center.

He begins with a surprisingly striking analogy:

I ask you to imagine briefly a world in which arithmetic has become property. ... Once we have reduced arithmetic to property, you'll have only as much arithmetic as you can afford, the consequence of which is that the gateways to material collaboration in the world, successful activity in relation to the physical and constructed environment, will depend very largely upon one's ability to acquire sufficient surplus amounts of mathematics.
Then invoking the famous words of Richard Stallman,

Why is software property? It should be knowledge to be shared, like math, like physics. It's unethical, to deprive people of information evidently available to them about the artefacts of digital society with which they are daily in contact -- it's evidently immoral to deprive them of knowledge. You've given the knowledge to the computer sitting next to them. They're using it -- the knowledge is playing a potentially determinative role in their lives. You've already delivered it to them -- all you haven't done is to deliver them the ability to know.

and also paraphrased John Dewey (who I had never heard of):

the education and expansion of the human mind depends upon the opportunity to experiment with the world.

talks quickly about the history of copyright in the US, and then turns to the new license itself.

He also has an interesting discussion comparing the pragmatic commercial foundations of US law and UK/Commonwealth common lay with what is happening online today:

But I would present to you the possibility that the UCC and the GPL 3 are in themselves a pair -- a pair, organizing an idea about the method of the creation of 21st century law. 21st century law is born in the street in the same way 21st century television is born in the street, not sent to you from the top of a broadcast tower, but upward from the cellphone and the portable camera put through YouTube.

21st century law is like 21st century music -- not made in an expensive recording studio or legislature, rented by the hour by people with the power to rent studios and legislatures, but made in every laptop in every den in every corner living room, in every garage, where a musician and a computer are, which is pretty much everywhere a musician is.


Of course, the idea that law might be something we all do together, it's got a long history stretching back far beyond the Free Software movement, stretching, in fact, back to beyond democracy. One of the characteristics that the continental Europeans noted of the English speakers, North Britains and South Britains, similarly in the course of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, was that English-speaking people had an almost personal relationship to the common law. A man might be an artisan or a yeoman farmer, but he believed the law to be in some sense his own. He was familiar with the courts, he served on juries, the language of the law was in his mouth. Even beyond the language of literature and religion, it was in his mouth. It was, if not folk law in some forests-of-Germany sense, community law. The law of us, and to be not of this law was to be not of us in some fundamental way.

This is a must read for anyone technically or legally inclined or engaged in 21st century society.

02:47 PM, 02 Jul 2007 by Mark Aufflick Permalink | Comments (0)


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