I recently subscribed to the Software Freedom Law Center’s podcast, and just finished listening to episode 5, in which SFLC director Eben Moglen talks about the history of copyright and patent law. It’s a bracing talk that’s bound to be controversial with a lot of people. And in particular, it’s framed in a way that’s not at all calculated to appeal to libertarians. With what I suspect is deliberate irony, he even uses the phrase “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” to describe what free software is all about.
Nevertheless, what struck me in listening to his talk was that even though Moglen’s rhetoric seems almost calculated to alienate libertarians used to aligning themselves with the political right, it’s awfully hard for libertarians to actually object to the substance of what the SFLC and the Free Software Foundation are doing. A quarter century ago, when Richard Stallman was upset with the trend
toward away from free software, he didn’t run to Congress seeking legal changes. Rather, he sat down and started building an alternative. One that we know today as the GNU/Linux operating system. He did so without a penny of government support, and without expropriating any resources from his proprietary competitors.
And in the process, he provided a powerful counterexample to many of the standard tropes of copyright and patent debates. In a world where some of the most popular websites on Earth are built on the LAMP stack, it’s awfully hard to argue with a straight face that creativity will only happen if creators are given monopoly rights in their creations. The rest of us can argue until they’re blue in the face about what a world with weaker copyright or patent protections would look like, but Stallman and company have bypassed that debate entirely by offering an existence proof of what an alternative world would look like. It’s awfully hard to argue something can’t happen when it obviously has.
Which I think is what gives Eben Moglen the credibility to deploy what I might otherwise regard as absurdly overwrought rhetoric. Most revolutionaries preach about the utopia that will exist in the future. In contrast, Moglen is talking about a utopia that’s being built as we speak. And happily for libertarians, it’s a utopia that’s being built without a shot being fired, or a tax dollar being spent.