This talk, by Eben Moglen, the lawyer who’s in charge of enforcing and revising the GPL, is fascinating:
There’s a trasnscript here. I thought this passage was especially interesting:
You and I, and the people who came before us, have been rolling a very large rock uphill a very long time. We wanted freedom of knowledge in a world that didn’t give it, which burned people for their scientific or religious beliefs. We wanted democracy, by which we meant originally the rule of the many by the many, and the subjection of today’s rulers to the force of law. And we wanted a world in which distinctions among persons were based not on the color of skin, or even the content of character, but just the choices that people make in their own lives. We wanted the poor to have enough, and the rich to cease to suffer from the diseases of too much. We wanted a world in which everybody had a roof, and everybody had enough to eat, and all the children went to school. And we were told, always, that it was impossible. And our efforts to make it happen turned violent on their side or on ours many more times than we can care to think for[?].
Now we’re in a different spot. Not because our aims have changed. Not because the objectives of what we do have changed. But because the nature of the world in which we inhabit technologically has altered so as to make our ideas functional in new and non-coercive ways.
We have never, in the history of free software, despite everything that has been said by lawyers, flaks, and propagandists on the other side–we have never forced anybody to free any code. I have enforced the GPL since 1993. Over most of that time I was the only lawyer in the world enforcing the GPL. I did not sue because the courts were not the place for the rag-tag revolution in its early stage to win pitched battles against the other side. On the contrary, in the world we lived in only ten or fifteen years ago, to have been forceful in the presentation of our legal claims would have meant failure even if we won. Because we would have been torn to pieces by the contending powers of the rich. On the contrary, we played very shrewdly, in my judgment now as I look back on the decisions that my clients made (I never made them). We played very shrewdly.
When I went to work for Richard Stallman in 1993, he said to me at the first instruction over enforcing the GPL, “I have a rule. You must never let a request for damages interfere with a settlement for compliance.” I thought about that for a moment and I decided that that instruction meant that I could begin every telephone conversation with a violator of the GPL with magic words: We don’t want money. When I spoke those words, life got simpler. The next thing I said was, We don’t want publicity. The third thing I said was, We want compliance. We won’t settle for anything less than compliance, and that’s all we want. Now I will show you how to make that ice in the wintertime. And so they gave me compliance. Which had been defined mutually as ice in the wintertime.
But as all of us who are about to live with less ice in the wintertime than we used to will soon know, ice in the wintertime can be good if you collect enough of it. And we did. We collected enough of it that people out there who had money to burn said: “Wait a minute. This software is good. We won’t have to burn money over it. And not only is this software good as software, these rules are good. Because they’re not about ambulance chasing. They’re not about a quick score. They’re not about holding up deep pockets. They’re about a real cooperation between people who have a lot and the people who have an idea. Why don’t we go in for that.” And within a very short period of time they had gone in for that. And that’s where we live now. In a world in which the resources of the wealthy came to us, not because we coerced them, not because we demanded, not because we taxed, but because we shared. Even with them, sharing worked better than suing or coercing. We were not afraid. We did not put up barbed wire, and so when they came to scoff, they remained to pray. And now, the force of what we are is too strong for a really committed, really adversarial, really cornered, really big monopoly to do anything about.
It seems to me that it’s a shame that it’s mostly folks on the left telling this story. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that the moral of Moglen’s story is that coercion is a poor means to the end of social justice. Progress is made by the voluntary cooperation of millions of people operating in a decentralized fashion. Coercion not only wasn’t necessary to accomplish the goals of the free software movement–it wasn’t even helpful. Far better to rely on persuasion and cooperation.
I didn’t agree with everything Moglen had to say, however. I think he’s wrong that in the future all software will be unowned. What I think you’ll see is that the basic software infrastructure–operating systems, web browsers, web servers, networking equipment, etc–will be free, while proprietary software will be concentrated in niche markets where there isn’t the critical mass for a free software solution. Free and proprietary software can peacefuly exist side by side, so long as the proprietary camp leaves the free software camp free to develop their software without legal interference.