The Future of Free Software Lies in the Past

Eben Moglen is convinced the software industry is returning to being about a free exchange of ideas and code. Free Software Foundation lawyer Eben Moglen wants to wipe out what he calls the 'scourge' of proprietary software.

The lawyer for the Free Software Foundation said during a keynote at the LinuxWorld Summit in New York City on Thursday that the IT world will return to a time before large businesses co-opted freely licensable software for proprietary products.

When he coded software back in 1973, the idea was "write once, run everywhere," he said. In 2005, that mantra might seem far-fetched at a time when thousands of Microsoft sales professionals license loads of software to consumers and businesses.

But Moglen said the Free Software Foundation and the Software Freedom Law Center he chairs are trying to return software to its glory days of shared development.

The lawyer, also a professor of law and legal history at Columbia University Law School, said the time has come to again treat science like physics or chemistry, by promoting a free exchange of ideas the way Galileo Galilei proposed.

"We are responding to a lengthy, but temporary period during which software was a proprietary, closed science ..." Moglen told the audience. "The consequences of that process produced bad software at high prices. We are reversing that situation. What we do is help people think well and share."

Moglen said certain incumbents, which he did not directly name, refuse to share their software ideas despite having originally taken much of the foundation of their products from the free software community.

The implication was clear: Despite some of the conveniences that today's popular software products offer, the free software advocate believes today's major software vendors copied the innovation of individual software developers to make a profit at the expense of users.

"We are slowly changing the environment to make their business model impossible," Moglen said. "Sharing, we think, produces better technology at lower prices and enables people to succeed in all sorts of social and economic endeavors."

Moglen was one of the staunchest opponents of SCO, which sued IBM in 2003 because it claimed Linux is an unauthorized derivative of Unix and that portions of its Unix intellectual property have made their way into Linux illegally.

The litigator also successfully helped guide the U.S. Patent Trademark Office to reject Microsoft's claim to a FAT file patent. The FAT file system is one of the technologies Microsoft has placed in its royalty-bearing licensing portfolio.

The patents came under scrutiny after critics claimed the licensing policy was the beginning of Microsoft's efforts to shut down Linux.

Moglen, who sharply disagrees with software patents because they hinder free use models, advocates the two existing models of free software provisions. One is for permissive use, which allows anyone to use, modify and make a piece of software into any product. BSD licensing is an example of this model.

The other model, which includes the GNU General Public License (GPL) maintained by the Free Software Foundation, permits users to use, modify, and make applications with code, with the understanding that it may not be used in proprietary products.

Moglen said users who need software can find an abundance of code to use for software building in online machine tool shops, such as SourceForge. In that community, he said some 95,000 programming projects are being worked on by roughly 490,000 programmers in their spare time.

To gauge how productive SourceForge and the open source community can be, he created a metric where if one subtracts the amount of people at Microsoft who don't make software (those who sell products and other corporate cogs), SourceForge is currently equal to 1.35 Microsofts.

By the end of the decade, that figure would see SourceForge equal 3.7 of the Redmond software giants, he estimated.

Moglen wound down the keynote discussion at LinuxWorld by lamenting the existence of too many open source licenses, noting that the 55 to 60 in existence only beckon additional legal risks for businesses.

This article was originally published on internetnews.com.

This article was originally published on May 27, 2005
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