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Eben Moglen's LibrePlanet 2010 Keynote on the State of Free Software and the Future
Saturday, August 07 2010 @ 09:41 AM EDT

Eben Moglen of the Software Freedom Law Center recently gave the keynote address at the LibrePlanet conference hosted by the Free Software Foundation. He speaks about the current state of Free Software, what some of the challenges will be going forward, and what is needed for stage 2, as he thinks of it. In the course of his speech, he also speaks about patents, Microsoft, the growing value of patent pools to protect the community's interests, and about Oracle and MySQL, and why the community needs corporate allies, suggesting a more nuanced and strategic view of who are the community's allies and why:
We need to think about the grand strategy of our continued forceful campaigning for free as in freedom. But we also need to be extremely aware of the extent to which we can now capitalize upon the achievements we have already set up and the alliances with forces not necessarily concerned with freedom that our technological sophistication has brought to them.
He calls them friends in unexpected places, and he discusses strategic possibilities, particularly with respects to dealing with Microsoft and the noxious patent system. We will need these allies, he says, that we are gaining, and here's why:
Microsoft will continue to attempt to get paid for what we do, by forcing people -- or quasi-forcing people through intimidatory conduct -- to take patent licenses to run our software....If we are to quell this nuisance we can only do so in cooperation with others who see clearly that this is a threat to the welfare of their customers....

We try to know what is going on, and we try and respond to it as effectively as we can, and we try to build coalitions with industrial parties outside the limits of the free world, narrowly construed, in order to protect the free world's interests.

He ends talking about privacy, and he sees a need to provide federated services and a free, compelling replacement for Facebook and then explain to people why they need such replacements.

A member of Groklaw, brooker, has done an unofficial transcript of the video. Enjoy! There are a few places where the audio was unclear, and we've left those without guessing. But if your ears are better than ours, and you can decipher the words, please let me know. We aim for perfection, while recognizing our limitations.

*******************************

Keynote Address by Eben Moglen, SFLC, at LibrePlanet 2010, delivered on July 31, 2010
[The first several seconds of the video consist of Eben Moglen saying thank you's, greetings and acknowledging old friends, with a statement that "It's good to be home."]

0:30
The state of Free Software -- a subject I've had occasion to talk about from time to time and in places like Cambridge -- is the subject this afternoon, and I'm pleased to be able to say that the state of Free Software is now unprecedentedly strong.

We are, in my judgment, past the point of inflection, in a journey we have all been taking now for longer than I care to think about. We have become indispensable. That was our goal from the beginning, to be indispensable. The purpose of being indispensable is to make freedom inexpungible, and I think we are now at the point where we can say that in practical terms that all that's been achieved. It is really no longer possible to do Information Technology in the global environment and on large scale without us.

1:41
It is not feasible because the goal of software engineering, when Richard and John and I and lots of other young people started fooling around with computers a quarter of a century or more ago, the purpose of software engineering was described in a single phrase: "Write once, run everywhere." That was the goal. That was the objective of software engineering as a discipline in our youth, and up until this point, nobody has achieved it except us. We have achieved it.

It took us really a remarkably short time to achieve that goal in view of the fact that everybody thought we either didn't exist at all or couldn't possibly be for real. [laughter]

But now, the only place you can go -- if what you want to do is write code that will run on everything from the smallest device you can carry in your pocket to the largest cluster of devices you can use -- the only place you can go, if you want to achieve that "write once, run everywhere" across all the orders of magnitude in scale that digital computation now embraces, the only place you can go is to us. We provide the one place where everybody can look for the ability to get something up that works -- not just works a little bit, but works with extraordinary solidity, reliability and effectiveness; not just works with extraordinary solidity, reliability and effectiveness, but does so at unit cost zero, if you are a sophisticated engineer.

3:39
The ability to run everywhere, in everything, reliably, dependably, with high quality code at unit price zero is not an achievable goal for the richest, most deeply funded monopoly in the history of the world, which is still, fundamentally not even trying [laughter] and which has just announced a "back to the drawing board" complete reset of the software it intends to use on mobile devices -- which means an essential return to "let's go back to scratch and start again" -- the consequence of which is not going to be "write once, run everywhere." We are, in other words, now the technology leadership at what was seen a generation ago as the hardest possible problem in computer technology.

We are also free, as in freedom. [loud applause]

4:50
What this means is that a social and political idea which, without Richard, would have perished is now directly tied to technology that nobody can do without, if they are seriously attempting to build things for 21st Century use.

5:10
Freedom will from here out be endangered. Freedom will be attacked, freedom will be undermined, freedom will be evaded in various ways -- some of them clever some of them stupid [laughter] -- but from here on out, the relationship between technological sophistication, agility, reliability, adaptability and low cost, means that freedom has acquired an extraordinary set of unintentional allies. They may not care about freedom at all, but they no longer have a choice but to further freedom's interests.

This represents, as I said, the point of inflection in our long campaign. Now, we begin to defend the achievement. Now we begin to play downhill against parties who have the harder sell in attempting unfree. Now we begin to become the default choice. And the process of limiting freedom becomes the problem of how to not choose the thing which works really well everywhere, and is extremely cheap, reliable, and simple and [unclear].

6:38
That's an extraordinary change in circumstances, and we deserve a moment in which to contemplate how far that place is from Richard's original starting point. We need to recognize the nature of the communal achievement. That should both give us confidence and energize us for the nature of the challenges that remain, which are serious in every respect.

We need to talk about the nature of those challenges. We need to think about the grand strategy of our continued forceful campaigning for free as in freedom. But we also need to be extremely aware of the extent to which we can now capitalize upon the achievements we have already set up and the alliances with forces not necessarily concerned with freedom that our technological sophistication has brought to them.

7:46
To begin with that, it is entirely clear, as Richard suggested for the better part of a decade and a half before most people started to believe it, it is entirely clear that the patent system's relationship to software technology is pathological, dangerous, and potentially fraught with opportunities to defeat us and our goals.

When Richard began to say this about the patent system in relation to software, the parties who have lots of patents that read on software technology did not believe. Some were polite, some were overtly dismissive, and some refused even to get into dialogue with people who were so foolish as to believe that the patent system was not only dangerous to freedom, but crushing innovation in software.

8:50
That is no longer true. Many parties continue to regard their own patents as given to them by God [laughter] as a force for virtue. [laughter] But soon the parties who take this position with respect for their own patents, have largely come to regard everybody else's patents as the work of the devil. [laughter] They experience continuous difficulty in achieving obviously socially positive goals, as well as their own home-based concern, which is the making of money and the keeping of the money that they make. They experience constant difficulty in relation to everything they want to do, caused by bad patents given to other people by the devil. [laughter]

9:44
The difficulty in sorting out, therefore, the good patents they possess, given to them by God, from the bad patents that everybody else possesses, given by the devil to everybody else has become a task for which they recognize that they are not precisely suited. [laughter] Even if, as sometimes happens, they are enabled by the ordinary routine of rotation in office to possess the job at the top of the patent office, this still does not end their need for some relief from the pathological behavior of the patent system, as it affects them through the patents given by the devil to everybody else.

10:27
They now begin to use substantial amounts of resource -- more money than we, collectively, will ever possess put together throughout our entire lives -- much political influence we do not yet directly possess, a great deal of industrial diplomacy, and a good deal of lawyering, for which I have at least the admiration that there is lots and lots of it, and sometimes it's very good. They now put all of that in the center of the table in order to defend...well...OUR software from its patent attack, primarily by a party which used to make a heap of money, allegedly making software, and which is now absolutely determined to get paid lots and lots for software it does not make, because the software it DOES make is no longer very good.

11:34
But it is not merely a question of what happens as Microsoft goes through the spiral of failure in which it is now caught. It is also the extent to which the trolls and the other parties placed on the battlefield by this incautious desire to get a lot of patents, only to discover that everybody else's patents are what the whalers used to call loose second lines. You remember in Moby Dick -- you throw harpoons at the whale and some of them miss, and then men in the water attached to lines zipping around, taking a guy's leg or arm or head off, because they're now simply unintended consequences of the physics you were attempting to use to kill your whale. The patent system is now full of loose second lines, whizzing around, and being sold to people whose sole usage of them is the making of trouble, the causing of bad consequences.

There is much more going on than is publicly known, because, by and large, when large wealthy organizations get bitten by patent trolls or by rent-seeking, failing monopolists, they don't go to the newspapers and talk about them, they don't post on Slashdot. They pay for peace and quiet, and they try and keep it peaceful and quiet. And it becomes very difficult to get anybody to confirm being mugged.

But I will tell you that in private they discuss it, when they can. And they complain about it bitterly. And the consequences of their unhappiness with other people's patents given to them by the devil, now in the hands of the demons and the trolls, their unhappiness is very intense. Of course, it is difficult to get everybody together in one big patent pool.

13:50
But we already have what Richard and I tried for years to conceptualize ways to bring into existence, namely patent pools to defend some free software projects. Those pools are, from our point of view, inadequate. Their coverage is not broad enough to sustain all of freedom. Their coverage is not even broad enough to sustain all the Free Software of greatest commercial value, *but* their coverage is broadening.

14:25
The nature of the access to the party's claims within those pools may not be operable for us, and we continue constantly to discuss and to negotiate how to make those pools optimally effective in helping us to do what we need to do to protect us from the patent mess. But they are beginning to have significant effect in mitigating the problem in the margins, and they will grow with time and become more significant to us as we become more significant to them.

15:06
It is also true that the misbehavior of patent holders has given us friends in unexpected places. This was clear as early as the negotiations over GPLv3 in 2006 and 2007. When parties who began with the belief that they did not want what FSF wanted for the license, and who were motivated to disagree, sometimes vehemently, about details of the proposals concerning the license, discovered through the duration of the process that the very clients that patent protection we were trying to create, the very forms of resistance to patent misbehavior that we were trying to embed in the license, were becoming increasingly necessary to them.

16:06
GPLv3's appeal to developers has been broad and significant because developers appreciated the benefits of the license as a whole. GPLv3's appeal in quarters where Free Software is now used by rich businesses to make money for themselves has turned out to be much greater than those companies thought the appeal would be, in very substantial part because they recognize the benefit of patent safety that we are providing within the commons established by GPLv3.

16:45
This is, of course, not the same as the adoption of our goals, or even the participation in the movement for freedom, but it means that the environment in which we operate has now got strategic possibilities for us that it didn't used to have. The patent system is still, I think, the nightmare at the front of where we are. If we make a list of the bad things going on, the patent system is directly responsible for, or significantly advances the threats that most concern us. We are also, I regret to say, increasingly aware that in order to quell the various forms of aggression against us in the use of patents, we will need the allies we are gaining.

17:48
Microsoft will continue to attempt to get paid for what we do, by forcing people -- or quasi-forcing people through intimidatory conduct -- to take patent licenses to run our software. In order to quell that nuisance, which is a very serious nuisance, because if parties who want to use our software commercially can't secure freedom zero without paying tribute in Redmond, then they don't get freedom zero. They get something less.

18:29
And they buy that from a party that has no right to interfere with their freedom, but who insists that their freedom is only a privilege in light of what is called intellectual property interests in the propaganda for unfreedom. If we are to quell this nuisance we can only do so in cooperation with others who see clearly that this is a threat to the welfare of their customers.

18:59
The customers we are talking about are the biggest businesses in the world. They make a lot of money. They buy a lot of information technology. They buy that information technology from all the largest suppliers in the world. They buy from IBM, they buy from Hewlett Packard, they buy from Cisco, they buy from Oracle, they buy from Microsoft.

There is only one party in that club routinely demanding that they pay to use other people's software. And if we can pull together a coalition about that, we can change the situation. Maybe not completely, but quite drastically.

From day to day, from week to week, from month to month, that's a large part of what SFLC needs to do, and does. We try to be a part of that conversation everywhere on earth. We try to know what is going on, and we try and respond to it as effectively as we can, and we try to build coalitions with industrial parties outside the limits of the free world, narrowly construed, in order to protect the free world's interests. That activity will continue for years to come.

We also recognize that there are complicated motions afoot within those large IT companies around the world. They have become aware of the free world's activity as contributing to what they think of as the commoditization of everything they don't make.

20:42
The commoditization of everything they don't make is an enormous economic value to all of those IT giants, because their business increasingly in a VERY competitive world, where profit margins on most physical things are very small -- their business is the provision of service, advice, knowledge, how-to-do. And in the business of providing know-how and service to add value to objects and software, the commoditization of everything you don't make, lowers your costs and increases your effectiveness in serving your customers. This has been an enormous advantage to us, because what THEY call commoditization, we call freedom to redistribute. And commoditization has therefore been the word under which business went into securing for us assistance to the furthering of freedoms two and three.

21:52
It's of course, not exactly the commitment to the freedoms, but it's a commitment to the reduction of friction affecting freedoms two and three. It's a commitment to undertaking to make freedoms two and three easier to have and easier to spread. Of course, once you have commoditized successfully most of what you don't make, there is a tendency in all the businesses to sit back and think it's over.

You can feel, if you deal with them about free world concerns all the time as I do, you can feel the way in which the particularly intense enthusiasm for the free world's products has begun to end. They know now, exactly what the commoditization of everything they don't make by the free world can do for them, and they're delighted to see it being done, but the manufacturing of innovative strategies has begun to flag.

23:07
Their business model doesn't require them to do more than they have done; it requires them now to keep what they have done rolling in the way that they have learned they can roll. We do face a challenge in managing the process by which their enthusiasm is harnessed. Their engineers remain enthusiastic -- they are us. The business units that deal directly with the engineers who are citizens of the free world remain enthusiastic. The laboratories and the post-laboratory structures which deal with the Free Software manufacturing inside the giants remain stalwart for us. Of course they serve their own business purposes first, but everything that isn't their business purposes is ours.

It's beyond that level, where the strategy of corporations is made by software strategists and business executives at the higher end of the org charts, where -- while I think it would be fair, not unduly critical -- to call "taking for granted" is beginning to occur.

24:25
We need to deal with taking for granted. It is in this context that I want to say a word about a matter that was controversial at the end of last year, which was the acquisition of Sun Microsystems by Oracle, a subject which caused a great deal of discussion, thoughtful and passionate both, as it should have done.

We, in the free world, have in general not looked to Oracle for pro-freedom activities. [laughter] We have tended to assume indeed that there was a basic conflict between the way in which Mr. Ellison runs his business and our general outlook on how people and their computers should sort together.

The purchase of Sun Microsystems by Oracle came -- for reasons which I think are contingent rather than essential -- came to revolve around the conversation about MySQL. And so, this would be a good time to talk about MySQL just for a moment.

As a example of how we have come to a moment of inflection. MySQL is the most installed database on earth. Indeed, as a business executive very close to that transaction with a good deal of history in the field said to me in a private conversation, "Every sophisticated, technically sophisticated, 15-year-old on earth knows how to use MySQL." [laughter] That same business executive said to me in that same conversation,"Oracle has 375 thousand customers, and they make a ton of money from them, but that's the only 375 thousand customers they're ever going to have. And there is no where on earth that you can go," this gentleman said, "to learn how to use Oracle...for free." This then, is the future of Oracle -- MySQL.

26:47
I'm not sure that if that gentleman had been Larry Ellison, he would have said exactly the same thing. If that gentleman were Larry Ellison, he would have said, "About the only, really first-class piece of software that Microsoft makes right now, is SQL Server. What makes SQL Server first-class software is that it scales from small to big. It can be used to compete with us at Oracle, and it can be used in a mom and pop shop. Therefore, I need to do something about it. Because my business is doing something about everything that could possibly threaten the predominance of Oracle."

"Therefore," I think Mr. Ellison would have said, if he had been able and willing to say exactly what he thought -- he's usually able, he's usually willing -- but there are rules. [laughter] I think Mr. Ellison would have said, had he been called upon to say something in December, "Therefore, I am going to take MySQL, and I am going to file all the edges on it as sharp as they can be filed. I'm going to make that a dagger of superlative sharpness, and I'm going to plunge it into the heart of SQLServer."

That was the purpose of MySQL as part of the acquisition of Sun Microsystems, and that's still its purpose.

From our point of view, if all this was was a combat between free and non-free software, it wouldn't matter. But it isn't. It's the attempt to turn the most installed database on Earth, a piece of free software, into something which can destroy one of the only pieces of software engineering for which Microsoft can justifiably pride itself, and is therefore an excellent example of the unusual way in which our strategic possibilities have been immensely extended by the peculiar relationship between businesses solely concerned with business and the freedom movement solely concerned with freedom.

This is an alliance of convenience now, obviously. I won't say that because we are people of ill-will. I say that because business is business, and it will do as it usually does, amorally follow its interest.

29:39
We are in a period now in which the exploration of our common interests will pay enormous dividends for them, in the quantities of money that they make, but they will also give us enormous political and social effort that we would use to make freedom further inexpungible.

Meantime, we face another set of problems, which have little to do with the patents given by the devil to the trolls and little to do with the fickleness and profit-seeking of businesses.

30:22
We face a problem -- which I know Richard intends to talk about at some length later this afternoon -- we face a problem in the destruction of privacy. And real threat to the integrity of human personality in which un-free software is a very important, necessary component. Worse yet, we face a problem that destruction of privacy and threat to the integrity of human personality in which Free Software is an important component. That's because Free Software is free for people to use, privately modified and not restricted.

31:06
And in the world of network services, free software can be part of how the net is used in inappropriate, freedom-defeating or privacy-destroying ways. We face a challenge, which is technical, social, and intellectual. The challenge is to explain to people clearly, insistently and with good effect the relationship between privacy and software freedom. We face a challenge which is to go beyond the language of software freedom to the questions that have always deeply concerned us - that I've been thinking about for decades, and Richard's been thinking about for decades, and John's been thinking about for decades -- how do we use the freedom of free software to make more political and social liberty and to protect it against deterioration by forces that have other values?

We now need to explain very clearly how that relationship between privacy, the integrity of human personality, and software freedom works.

32:23
We've got to teach a lot of things to a lot of people, and first we have to figure out some difficult things for ourselves, because, while we all have an unfocused or not-quite-perfectly articulated view of the relationship between privacy, human autonomy, and the freedom of Free Software, we now need to make it precise.

32:40
I have already said in public a couple of times that not only do we need to make it precise, we need to extantiate it in software. We need to build a stack that can be used on commodity hardware to help people run federated services, rather than centralized services in the net. We need to create an environment which is capable of challenging peoples' assumption that centralized network services are necessary to the lives they live from day to day.

The important thing to keep in mind about free software is that Richard was so far ahead of his time in seeing the problems and conceiving a solution that he invented the Free Software movement before most of the world was suffering from software unfreedom.

33:43
That meant that we didn't have to persuade most people that they didn't need software freedom. We needed to tell them there was such a thing as software freedom and where it could be found.

In confronting problems like the effect of Facebook, or other spying inside social communication mass systems, we face a problem of convincing people that they need a solution to a problem they don't yet perceive.

If you look at Slashdot conversations about the freedom loss in the last few decades, you see how many people, technically sophisticated Netizens like us, believe that there is no difficulty -- and not only do they believe there is no difficulty, they are far more sure that nobody else perceives a difficulty at all.

34:40
Why would anybody want this stuff you're talking about? We must have really good answers to that question. Now some of those answers will be practical, thanks to the efforts of [David Sugar?], untiring as they have been, we are now getting close to the point where we will actually be able to say to people, "You want this thing because it will also be able to make free phone calls for you to everybody you know forever." We will be able to say, and it will allow you to join together with your Chinese friends, and your Iranian friends and other friends to climb over the walls that their societies are building around them. We will be able to offer people a broad variety of additional reasons why you should move from Facebook to freedom.

We must also provide them a very sophisticated set of services to which people have become used, and on which they are now dependent. And we will have to provide those services competitively as quality and ease of use in every way, if we are to convince them to take advantage of what we will have to offer, even after we have done our best to make it.

36:02
This is a very potent challenge, and it calls upon us to do ALL the things we do well -- not just make software. It calls upon us to teach and explain and evangelize and initiate in a whole new level if we are actually going to show people why they need to get out of the holes into which they are being led in little quantities of sugar, disposed of in small and carefully monitored and surveilled lumps.

36:31
This is not a trivial activity. We could say, and probably we should, that it's as hard as everything we've already done. But it's not harder, and we've already done what we've already done. So we can do this too.

36:50
What we are entering in upon then is our maturity. It isn't that GNU is finished. GNU, fortunately, is renewed all the time and is becoming renewable. In the same way that there was a moment a few years back when I talked to Leon, and I realized that there were a bunch of young hackers in their late teens who were getting into apps and that's going to ahave an enormous effect in renewing what was there. We are gonna have a flood of people towards GNU, and that's going to make an immense difference.

It's going to happen everywhere. But Mr. Jobs is investing heavily in LLVM solely so he can stop using GCC, lest the patents somehow leak across the GPLv3 barrier, and we become able to use his claims. Nobody has ever tried before, to build a multi-platform C compiler solely in order to undermine freedom. [laughter] A hardware manufacturer or two has done something here and there -- we had a little bit of BSD interest in non-copyleft compilation -- but here's the man whose selfishness surpasses any recorded selfishness. [laughter/applause]

38:26
It's unfortunate. But writing software is what we do best. And catching GCC with LLVM isn't going to be easy. [?] you know, there's lots to do.

38:48
GPLv3 and the GCC runtime exceptions, on which my colleagues Bradley Kuhn and Karen Sandler worked so hard for quite a long time after GPLv3 was over, along with Brad and other FSF troops who also assisted in that effort, but GCC is now, both from its licensing and on its technical basis, capable of new leaps forward. And we need to make sure that it continues so. We all have to undercut selfishness in a variety of places, but we're a mature movement. The entire world needs us. There isn't any way to do as well as we do what we do, that nobody else ever really got around to doing, ever.

39:32
The monopoly is faltering. Users around the world have realized there is an alternative. And as governments in the United States begin to be very strapped for cash to do anything over the next two years, they're going to come to us in a major way.

So we are now in a new phase. I think of it as stage two. And stage two is going to be very interesting indeed. It's not about "we're done", it's not about "we've won the war, it's over", and everybody demobilizes to go home. There's no big party like at the end of every Star Wars epic ever made. [laughter]

You know, the alarm rings and you go to the office like we always do. But we go with a new spring in our step. We go with new confidence.

40:33
They will never beat us. We will always be here. We know what our work is, better than they know what their work is, because our goal doesn't have to be modified from quarter to quarter when the securities analysts stop in for a talk.

40:52
We do the same thing we always do. We make as much freedom as we can, and we give it to as many people as we can reach. But we can make more freedom because the Net is a very good place now, and we can give it to more people because billions of people are coming.

41:09
And what do we need? A USB key you can boot from, a box the size of a wall-wart that fits in a plug in the wall, a phone, a coat-hanger or two, a [?].

Some very big people are still going to learn that freedom has a lot more tricks in its bag. You're going to make the tricks, I'm going to keep them from crushing the tricks until they are ready, and we are all gonna play some pretty good music together.

I look forward to the next couple of decades very much. Thank you.

[applause]


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