tically using the legal system and any other means necessary to stay
ahead of their competitors.It’s just part of doing business.
One of the best examples is content production, , which is led by
mega-companies like Disney.In recent years,Hollywood has worked
hard to get copyright laws changed so that the copyright lasts 95 years
instead of 75 years. In 1998, Congress passed the Sonny Bono
Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (CTEA) that kept works pub-
lished after 1923 from passing into the public domain until 2019.The
industry feels that this gives them the protection to keep creating new
items.Creations like Mickey Mouse and Snow White will continue to
live in the very safe place controlled by Disney and not fall into the evil
hands of the public domain.
Several Harvard professors, , Larry Lessig, Charles Nesson, , and
Jonathan Zittrain of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at
Harvard Law School,and Geoffrey Stewart of the Boston law firm Hale
and Dorr filed a lawsuit contesting the act by pointing out that the
Constitution provides for a “limited”term.Artists,authors,and creators
were given copyright protection,but it was only for a limited amount of
time.Afterward,the society could borrow and use the work freely.
There’s little doubt that the major Hollywood producers recognize
the value of a well-stocked collection of public domain literature.
Movies based on works by William Shakespeare,Henry James, , and
Jane Austen continue to roll out of the studios to the welcoming
patrons who buy tickets despite knowing how the story ends.Disney
itself built its movie franchise on shared fables like Sleeping Beauty or
Snow White.Very few of Disney’s animated films (Th
one of the first ones) were created in-house from a clean piece of paper.
Most were market-tested for acceptance by their years in the public
domain.Of course,Disney only pays attention to this fact when they’re
borrowing an idea to create their own version,not when they’re defend-
ing the copyright of their own creations.They want to take,not give.
The movie industry,like the proprietary software business,seems to
forget just how valuable a shared repository of ideas and solutions can
be.In this context,the free source movement isn’t an explosion of cre-
ative brilliance or a renaissance of cooperation,it’s just a return to the
good old days when Congress wouldn’t slavishly answer the whims of
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the content industry.If a theater owner wanted to put on a Shakespeare
play,the text was in the public domain.If someone wanted to rewrite
Jane Austen and create the movie Clu
,they were free to do so.In the
good old days,copyright faded after a limited amount of time and
the public got something back for granting a monopoly to the artist.
In the good old days, , the artist got something back, , too,when the
monopoly of other artists faded away.
It’s not like this brave new world of total copyright protection has
generated superior content.The so-called original movies aren’t that
different.All of the action movies begin with some death or explosion
in the first two minutes.They all run through a few car chases that lead
to the dramatic final confrontation.The television world is filled with
30-minute sitcoms about a bunch of young kids trying to make it on
their own.It’s sort of surprising that Hollywood continues to suggest
that the copyright laws actually promote creativity.
It’s not hard to believe that we might be better off if some of the
characters were protected by an open source license.Superman and
Batman have both gone through several decades of character morphing
as the artists and writers assigned to the strips change.Of course,that
change occurred under the strict control of the corporation with the
The thousands of fan novels and short stories are better examples.
Many fans of movies like Star Tr
k orStar War
often write their own
stories using the protected characters without permission.Most of the
time the studios and megalithic corporations holding the copyright look
the other way.The work doesn’t make much money and is usually born
out of love for the characters.The lawyers who have the job of defend-
ing the copyrights are often cool enough to let it slide.
Each of these novels provides some insight into the characters and
also the novelist.While not every novelist is as talented as the original
authors,it can still be fun to watch the hands of another mold the char-
acters and shape his or her destiny.The world of the theater has always
accepted the notion that directors and actors will fiddle with plays and
leave their own marks on them.Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if writers
could have the same latitude after the original author enjoyed a short
period of exclusivity.
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There are many ways in which the free software world is strange and
new to society,but sharing ideas without limitations is not one of them.
Almost all businesses let people tinker and change the products they
buy.The software industry likes to portray itself as a bunch of libertari-
ans who worship the free market and all of its competition.In reality,
the leading firms are riding a wave of power-grabbing that has lasted
several decades.The firms and their lawyers have consistently inter-
preted their rules to allow them to shackle their customers with
stronger and stronger bonds designed to keep them loyal and ever-
This is all part of a long progression that affects all industries.Linus
Torvalds explained his view of the evolution when he told the San
, “Regardless of open source, , programs will become
really cheap.Any industry goes through three phases.First,there’s the
development of features people need. . Then there’s the frills-and-
upgrade phase,when people buy it because it looks cool.Then there’s
the everybody-takes-it-for-granted phase.This is when it becomes a
commodity.Well,we’re still in the look-cool-and-upgrade stage.In 10
or 15 years you’ll be happy with software that’s 5 years old. . Open
source is one sign that we’re moving in that direction.”
In this light,the free software revolution isn’t really a revolution at
all.It’s just the marketplace responding to the overly greedy approaches
of some software companies.It’s just a return to the good old days when
buying something meant that you owned it,not that you just signed on
as a sort of enlightened slave of the system.
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Microsoft is an American company. . Bill Gates lives in Washington
State and so do most of the programmers under his dominion.The
software they write gets used around the globe in countries big and
small,and the money people pay for the software comes flooding back
to the Seattle area,where it buys huge houses,designer foods,and lots
of serious and very competitive consumption.Through the years,this
sort of economic imperialism has built the great cities of Rome,
London,Tokyo,Barcelona,and many other minor cities.History is just
a long series of epochs when some company comes up with a clever
mechanism for moving the wealth of the world home to its cities.
Britain relied on opium for a while.Rome,it might be said,sold a legal
system. Spain trafficked in pure gold and silver.Microsoft is selling
structured information in one of the most efficient schemes yet.
Of course,these periods of wealth-building invariably come to an
abrupt end when some army,which is invariably described as “ragtag,”
shows up to pillage and plunder.The Mongolian hordes,the Visigoths,
and the Vikings are just a few of the lightweight, lean groups that
appeared over the horizon and beat the standing army of the fat and
complacent society.This was the cycle of boom and doom that built
and trashed empire after dynasty after great society.
Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that Linus Torvalds has Viking blood
in him.Although he grew up in Finland,he comes from the minority
of the population for whom Swedish is the native tongue.The famous
neutrality during World War II,the lumbering welfare states,the Nobel
Peace Prize,and the bays filled with hiding Russian submarines give
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the impression that the Viking way is just a thing of the past,but maybe
some of the old hack and sack is still left in the bloodlines.
The Linux movement isn’t really about nations and it’s not really
about war in the old-fashioned sense.It’s about nerds building software
and letting other nerds see how cool their code is.It’s about empower-
ing the world of programmers and cutting out the corporate suits.It’s
about spending all night coding on wonderful, magnificent software
with massive colonnades,endless plazas,big brass bells,and huge steam
whistles without asking a boss “Mother,may I?”It’s very individualistic
That stirring romantic vision may be moving the boys in the
trenches,but the side effects are beginning to be felt in the world of
global politics.Every time Linux,FreeBSD,or OpenBSD is installed,
several dollars don’t go flowing to Seattle.There’s a little bit less avail-
able for the Microsoft crowd to spend on mega-mansions,SUVs,and
local taxes.The local library,the local police force,and the local schools
are going to have a bit less local wealth to tax.In essence,the Linux
boys are sacking Seattle without getting out of their chairs or breaking a
sweat.You won’t see this battle retold on those cable channels that traf-
fic in war documentaries,but it’s unfolding as we speak.
The repercussions go deeper.Microsoft is not just a Seattle firm.
Microsoft is an American company and whatever is good for Microsoft
is usually good,at least in some form,for the United States.There may
be some fraternal squabbling between Microsoft and Silicon Valley,but
the United States is doing quite well.The info boom is putting millions
to work and raising trillions in taxes.
The free software revolution undermines this great scheme in two
very insidious ways.The first is subtle.No one officially has much con-
trol over a free software product,and that means that no country can
claim it as its own. . If Bill Gates says that the Japanese version of
Windows will require a three-button mouse,then Japan will have to
adjust.But Torvalds,Stallman,and the rest can’t do a darn thing about
anyone.People can just reprogram their mouse.If being boss means
making people jump,then no one in the free software world is boss of
anything.Free source code isn’t on anyone’s side.It’s more neutral than
Switzerland was in World War II.The United States can only take
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solace in the fact that many of the great free source minds choose to live
in its boundaries.
The second effect is more incendiary.Free software doesn’t pay taxes.
In the last several centuries,governments around the world have spent
their days working out schemes to tax every transaction they can find.
First,there were just tariffs on goods crossing borders,then the bold
went after the income,and now the sales tax and the VAT are the
crowning achievement.Along the way,the computer with its selfless
ability to count made this possible.But how do you tax something that’s
free? How do you take a slice out of something that costs nothing?
These are two insidious effects.The main job of governments is to
tax people.Occasionally,one government will lust after the tax revenue
of another and a war will break out that will force people to choose
sides.The GPL and the BSD licenses destroy this tax mechanism,and
no one knows what this will bring.
One of the best places to see this destabilization is in the efforts of
the United States government to regulate the flow of encryption soft-
ware around the globe.Open source versions of encryption technology
are oozing through the cracks of a carefully developed mechanism for
restricting the flow of the software.The U.S.government has tried to
keep a lid on the technology behind codes and ciphers since World War
II.Some argue that the United States won World War II and many of
the following wars by a judicious use of eavesdropping.Codebreakers in
England and Poland cracked the German Enigma cipher,giving the
Allies a valuable clue about German plans.The Allies also poked holes
in the Japanese code system and used this to win countless battles.No
one has written a comprehensive history of how code-breaking shifted
the course of the conflicts in Vietnam,Korea,or the Middle East,but
the stories are bound to be compelling.
In recent years,the job of eavesdropping on conversations around the
world has fallen on the National Security Agency,which is loath to lose
the high ground that gave the United States so many victories in the
past.Cheap consumer cryptographic software threatened the agency’s
ability to vacuum up bits of intelligence throughout the world, , and
something needed to be done.If good scrambling software was built
into every copy of Eudora and Microsoft Word,then many documents
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would be virtually unreadable.The United States fought the threat by
regulating the export of all encryption source code.The laws allowed
the country to regulate the export of munitions,and scrambling soft-
ware was put in that category.
These regulations have caused an endless amount of grief in Silicon
Valley. The software companies don’t want someone telling them
what to write.Clearing some piece of software with a bureaucrat in
Washington,D.C.,is a real pain in the neck.It’s hard enough to clear
it with your boss.Most of the time,the bureaucrat won’t approve
decent encryption software,and that means the U.S.company has a
tough choice:it can either not export its product,or build a substan-
There are branches of the U.S.government that would like to go fur-
ther.The Federal Bureau of Investigation continues to worry that crim-
inals will use the scrambling software to thwart investigations.The fact
that encryption software can also be used by average folks to protect
their money and privacy has presented a difficult challenge to policy
analysts from the FBI.From time to time,the FBI raises the specter of
just banning encryption software outright.
The software industry has lobbied long and hard to lift these regula-
tions,but they’ve had limited success.They’ve pointed out that much
foreign software is as good as if not better than American encryption
software.They’ve screamed that they were losing sales to foreign com-
petitors from places like Germany,Australia,and Canada,competitors
who could import their software into the U.S. and compete against
American companies.None of these arguments went very far because
the interests of the U.S.intelligence community always won when the
president had to make a decision.
The free source code world tripped into this debate when a peace
activist named Phil Zimmerman sat down one day and wrote a program
he called Pretty Good Privacy,or simply PGP.Zimmerman’s package
was solid,pretty easy to use,and free.To make matters worse for the gov-
ernment,Zimmerman gave away all of the source code and didn’t even use
a BSD or GPL license.It was just out there for all the world to see.
The free source code had several effects.First,it made it easy for every-
one to learn how to build encryption systems and add the features to their
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own software.Somewhere there are probably several programmers being
paid by drug dealers to use PGP’s source code to scramble their data.At
least one person trading child pornography was caught using PGP.
Of course,many legitimate folks embraced it.Network Solutions,the
branch of SAIC,the techno powerhouse,uses digital signatures gener-
ated by PGP to protect the integrity of the Internet’s root server.Many
companies use PGP to protect their e-mail and proprietary documents.
Banks continue to explore using tools like PGP to run transaction net-
works.Parents use PGP to protect their kids’e-mail from stalkers.
The free source code also opened the door to scrutiny.Users,pro-
grammers, and other cryptographers took apart the PGP code and
looked for bugs and mistakes.After several years of poking,everyone
pretty much decided that the software was secure and safe.
This type of assurance is important in cryptography.Paul Kocher,an
expert in cryptography who runs Cryptography Research in San Francisco,
explains that free source software is an essential part of developing cryptog-
raphy.“You need source code to test software,and careful testing is the only
way to eliminate security problems in cryptosystems,”he says.“We need
everyone to review the design and code to look for weaknesses.”
Today,security products that come with open source code are the
most trusted in the industry.Private companies like RSA Data Security
or Entrust can brag about the quality of their in-house scientists or the
number of outside contractors who’ve audited the code,but nothing
compares to letting everyone look over the code.
When Zimmerman launched PGP, however, , he knew it was an
explicitly political act designed to create the kind of veil of privacy that
worried the eavesdroppers.He framed his decision,however,in crisp
terms that implicitly gave each person the right to control their
thoughts and words.“It’s personal.It’s private.And it’s no one’s busi-
ness but yours,”he wrote in the introduction to the manual accompany-
ing the software.“You may be planning a political campaign,discussing
your taxes,or having an illicit affair.Or you may be doing something
that you feel shouldn’t be illegal,but is.Whatever it is,you don’t want
your private electronic mail (e-mail) or confidential documents read by
anyone else.There’s nothing wrong with asserting your privacy.Privacy
is as apple-pie as the Constitution.”
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Documents you may be interested
Documents you may be interested