Eben Moglen: Software is an inherently incremental intellectual product.

Vast institutions are committed to the social philosophy that only exclusionary practices inevitably involving the large-scale continuance of unnecessary ignorance are essential to the production of useful information. Vast economic rents are being extracted from the world, and enormous numbers of people are going unfulfilled in intellectual and aesthetic needs that we can provide for. One inevitable consequence of the continuance of that approach is that people are forbidden to share.

In 1993, the National Information Infrastructure Working Group on Intellectual Property, led by the chair of the PTO, Bruce Lehman, produced a green paper on intellectual property in the evolving Internet, which became eventually a White House policy document in the first Clinton administration. The IP Working Group report stated that, although it would indeed be necessary to increase copyright infringement penalties drastically, that measure would be inadequate to change social behavior sufficiently to protect intellectual property in the net. Accordingly, the IPWG suggested, every school receiving federal funds should have a curriculum in grades K-12, teaching children that it is wrong to share information. They suggested–I am not fooling you–a slogan in the aftermath of Mrs. Reagan’s extraordinary success at ending drug abuse in America. The slogan was: “Just say ‘yes’ to licensing.” What they did not explain was what you called the institution in which you explained to children that it is wrong to share information; it seemed improbable that one would continue to call such a place a school. Nonetheless, I thought that their intellectual honesty was extremely commendable. They had come to the heart of the problem. Their goal was the maintenance of existing social and economic relationships at the expense of incurring the fundamental intellectual inconsistency of their position: that we must teach people that they must not teach others, or else.

Now, it is in that context that we have made a social network committed to the proposition that the central executable elements of human technology can be produced by sharing–without exclusionary property relations. And that if the central executable elements of technology can be made by sharing, without exclusionary property relations, then the non-executable elements of culture–art, useful information, and so on–can be distributed without exclusionary property relations. It is this process that you are presently witnessing.

When I began working as a computer programmer for pay, in the early 1970s, there was a goal. Software developers had a purpose. The purpose was embodied in a four-word phrase: “Write once, run everywhere.” It meant, develop software which can be made to run on all of the hardware that even then rather heterogeneously populated society. It was, from the point of view of venture-capital funded, profit-making, investor-owned industries, an impossible goal, never achieved. We did it. GNU, Linux, and all the other thousands of programs in the free software world, run, as Rita correctly said, on everything. From the palmtop, the cell phone, and the single-purpose appliance–like the digital camera and the personal video recorder–to the mainframe. There was one purpose to software engineering overall throughout my lifetime, and we did it. The best-funded monopoly in the history of the world does not even try.

There are reasons, which I have explored in my writing, including in the piece “Anarchism Triumphant,” that production of executable software without property relations inherently develops superior software–not immediately, but over the long term. The analysis of that proposition I leave in detail for further discussion. It’s essence is this: software (executable software) is an inherently incremental intellectual product. This is an argument, by the way, against the application of the patent system to it, not a philosophical one, but a technical one. The appropriate invocation of the principal of novelty and non-obviousness to software results in zero software patents. All persons reasonably skilled in the art are capable of achieving each result incrementally, from where the art is at any given moment. But more importantly, for our purposes, the process of making software is massively parallelizable when the costs of communication and coordination are reduced near zero.

The net is a superconductive medium for the creation of software. So, as I wrote in 1999 when it was a little less obvious than it is today, we are witnessing a phenomenon first noticed by Michael Faraday at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Wrap a coil around a magnet; spin the magnet. Electrical current flows in the wire. One does not ask, “what is the incentive for the electrons to leave home?” It’s an inherent, emergent property of the system, we have a name for it: we call it induction. The question we ask is, “what is the resistance of the wire?” Moglen’s corollary to Faraday’s Law says, wrap the Internet around every brain on the planet; spin the planet. Software flows in the network. It is wrong to ask, “What is the incentive for people to create?” It’s an emergent property of connected human minds that they do create. The forms in which they create, like the evolution of spoken and written language, like the disposition of memes, cultural forms, patterns of pottery, shapes of musical endeavor, and so on, are structural characteristics of the human mind. We are a social species, and we create together; that’s our nature. The question to ask is, “What is the resistance of the network?” Moglen’s Corollary to Ohlm’s Law states that the resistance of the network is directly proportional to the field strength of the intellectual property system. The conclusion is: Resist the resistance. Which is what we do. We have been doing it in an exponential growth curve for slightly over twenty years. Now we have forty percent of the server market (note: 60-65% as of 2012). We’re going to have a hundred percent of the appliance market within five years. That’s a trivial economic deduction from the following simple fact: when you sell a four-hundred dollar palm top, you can afford to pay a license fee for its operating system, of $24.95, or $49.95, or incur expensive in-house development activity and make a Palm OS. When the box costs fifty bucks, there’s no room left for paying $12.95 to Mister Gates: we win. We win.

We all do it together, the software’s a public utility; “Write once, run everywhere”; we’re done. This is a noticeable proposition, not just to us- though we understand why it is socially and politically desirable that the world work this way. It is a noticeable proposition for the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM), too. You now have, after a mere twenty years of work on our part, the largest, best-funded technology company on earth fundamentally on our side with respect to how the information technology system will work in the twenty-first century. San Palmisano, Irving Wladawski-Berger, you read them all the time, there’s a simple proposition: software’s a public utility, computing is an on-demand service provided by service providers who handle the internalized cost of making computing possible, and so on.

Thus we observe the new political economy of software. If you have a network and you share, you can achieve the ethical goal of allowing everybody to understand, to improve, to find and fix bugs, to create better software, and to share information in a way that allows them to improve their technical skills. Free software is the single greatest technical library on earth. I say that because free software is the only field where a person can go from naiveté, to the state of the art, in everything that a particular field contains, solely by reading material that is universally available at no cost everywhere the network exists. That is the single, greatest intellectual capital development program in the world. The legal system that makes that possible, the GNU General Public License, with which I have some intimate experience, achieves the creation of a greater and more extensive knowledge exchange program than any other in the world, at no cost. When my colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) decided to put their entire curriculum on the web–every course, every teaching material, every problem set, every examination–they were adopting the recognition that the principle of Western science, the principle of free software, and the principle of non-exclusion are the path of development for the twenty-first century, a proposition which has its capitalist echo in the behavior of IBM.

  • Eben Moglen

Freeing the Mind :
Free Software and the Death of Proprietary Culture