Software, Freedom and The World Beyond Computer Programs

Author:Benjamin Mako Hill
Organization:MIT Media Lab
Date:Friday, 28 Oct 2005



Slide 1: Intro Slide

Introduce myself:

  • free Software hobbyist
  • IP researcher

Introduce my talk:

  • Describe the problems that the current information environment (and its inhabitants) has found itself in.
  • Break down the solutions being offered roughly into four classes. Quickly review the first three which should be familiar to most.
  • Focus on the fourth model which is most famously represented by the FOSS movement.
  • Talk about the promise and the limitations of using free software as a model upon which to make conclusions about other types of information goods.

The Problem


4 Minutes elapsed


Slide 2

The reason we are here:

  • Expression is facilitated and framed by copyright in today's world

  • Meanwhile, copyright is in crisis

  • Information:

    • a quickly growing class of goods, has been transformed itself into a good with zero marginal cost by a series of technologies:

      Eben Moglen, "Everyone can have everything everywhere at the same price that anyone can anything."

    Control of information is centralized (through copyright) in distribution companies who are finding themselves increasingly irrelevant except perhaps in the creation of celebrity.

And the cost approaches zero every time there is a better compression algorithm, a faster DSL connection, a more efficient copying machine -- er, a more powerful computer -- installed onto our desks.

The results, of course, are obvious: A gap between legal the reality as the people creating the information feel it, the realities as the consumers feel it and, the realities as the distribution companies (and their lobbyists) feel it.

  • Expansion to copyright (Happy Birthday is copyrighted and signing it with friends is infringement)
  • DRM technology designed with the idea of the user as an enemy in mind,
  • Lawsuits:
    • Children and their parents sued by Time Warner
    • Russian programmers put in jail in the US
    • Norwegian teenagers arrested.

The bottom line seems to be that doing nothing is not an option.



10 minutes elapsed



16 minutes elapsed


Slide 5 Piracy

The transgressive argument is relatively easy to understand:

We'll keep consuming media until we kick the legs out from under the industry.

Yes: If we ignore them, they will go away eventually.

But: Ignoring them means more than just ignoring them when it comes to fee. It means ignoring them and piracy misses this key element.

As a result, I find the result unconvincing.

Create Alternative Ecosystems


Slide 6 Free Software

(2 minutes)

The final alternative is to really ignore the old system that are creating the problem. Basically:

Let's create information and distribute them freely and outside the system.

Let's use voluntary licensing schemes to create communities that allows freedom from all of those above and that, actually work.

As those become compelling, they demonstrate how the old systems are neither necessary nor efficient.

Free Software is the most visible example of a group following this model and it's what I will talk about for the remainder of my time.

The Free Software Model


20 minutes elapsed

The free software model is an example of an alternative.



Slide 7 Free Software Definition

Free Software was created by Richard Stallman more than 20 years ago. It was a "movement" that aimed to create (or recreate) an era of free sharing where he though he could do what was ethical.

Now, a bit of terminology: "Free software" versus "open source"

It turned out, Richard's model also created really good software. More collaboration made better works. When works are primarily functional, we can make this argument.

These pragmatic benefits became so important that some people tried to create a new movement focus only on the pragmatic benefits and they called that open source. The definitions of "open source" though is identical to the definition of free software.

Free Software's Success


26 minutes elapsed

Free Software's has been an unqualified success.

How Free Software Worked


30 minutes elapsed

  1. It is radically non-discriminatory and goal oriented

    Basically, the only thing it discriminates against is discrimination.

    Beyond "do what you like" the only widely used additions within the free software world are:

    • so called "advertising clauses" that aim to maintain attribution
    • "copyleft bits"

    Goal orientedness.

    The Point

    FS was a movement toward a goal of freedom. RMS saw it as a social movement. Others saw it as a movement for more efficient business. But it was a movement toward an invariable set of goals.

  2. FS is totally voluntary and can work along side the current system.

    FOSS worked by using licenses (the GNU GPL)

    The point

    One benefit of the free software model is that to succeed, we need only ignore the existing situation.

    Free software creates communities, "competing" against proprietary software. But not in a way that even the best business schools train you to compete.

    If you want to be condescending, you can call free software "info hippies" but do so remembering that the most powerful social movements were, early on, dismissed using such terms.

    We have legal tools to keep us insulated and we have lawyers and law firms which protect them. But all we need to do is ignore the producers.

Non-Functional Works


Slide 8 Beyond Software


35 minutes elapsed

It make sense to try to end on what is most relevant to this community which is primarily non-functional works.

What are the differences:

Most notable among people who have learned from free software and tried to apply it other works is Creative Commons which takes a very incomplete view of the free software movement.

CC sees the success as free software as one based on "private ordering" or licensing. Free software did not succeed because of licenses. It existed before licenses. (software sharing commune)

What standard:

The tricky issues seems to be around commercial use and derivative works.

Perhaps what we can learn from FS is that by setting some definition of freedom, we can begin to build a social movement for real freedom.

So far, programmers and lawyers have been defining freedom for the production of other types of artistic works. You all should start thinking of these issues..