There is no doubt that much of what is going on in legislative systems
worldwide is hostile to both free software and the larger principles of
fair use of ideas and copyrighted works. Laws like the DMCA or the
ban the writing of programs which provide "unauthorized"
access to legitimately purchased materials. Proposed laws like the CBDTPA
(seen defined as "Consume, But Don't Try Programming Anything") could
outlaw broad classes of free software outright. There is clearly cause to
worry. But what should we do
about these threats?
Columnist Dan Gillmor tells us
to get involved and pressure government for better laws:
But I'm convinced that we can preserve our rights, if we can only
persuade Congress that they're worth preserving. There's little or
no constituency for fair use and other rights, partly because
lawmakers are only hearing one side. But if the community of
readers, listeners, viewers, scholars, researchers and others who
don't ``own'' copyrights doesn't at least challenge the terms of
the debate, it will surely lose.
Mr. Gillmor tells us that we need to "reeducate" Congress and press
technology companies to be more assertive about the rights and needs of its
customers, rather than those of big media. With enough political pressure,
our rights can be preserved.
Before going off to pressure Congress (or Parliament, or whatever), though,
it is worth taking a look at another view. Declan McCullagh, who has
covered Congress and technology for years, has recently posted a column questioning
the value of the political path:
Here's the bitter truth: These efforts are mostly a waste of
time. Sure, they may make you feel better, but they're not the way
His suggestion, instead, is to take the classic cypherpunk approach: write
Put another way, who made a bigger difference: Yet another
letter-scribbling activist or Phil Zimmermann, who wrote the
Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption software? How about Shawn
Fanning, the man who created Napster? Or the veterans of the
Internet Engineering Task Force, which oversees the fundamental
protocols of the Internet?
He has a point: had Phillip Zimmermann not written PGP when he did, the
battle for the right to use strong encryption may well have been lost a
In general, the wide diffusion of technology makes it harder to outlaw or
control that technology. In 1990, it might just have been possible to pass
a CBDTPA-like law which would have made the distribution of free operating
systems impossible. In 2002, Linux and *BSD are everywhere, serving many
critical functions; outlawing them is not a practical possiblity. Hackers
should, indeed, be creating and distributing code. Getting that code out
where it can not be recalled is an important activity for the defense of
But wouldn't it be a nicer world if free software hackers did not need to
fear arrest and incarceration for releasing the wrong code? Wouldn't it be
better if copyright law were to swing back toward the longstanding values
of fair use, first sale, and compromise between control and the free
exchange of ideas? To claim that the only worthwhile work is writing code
is to see the future as a sort of guerilla war against an entrenched
copyright regime. This does not sound like a fun future, and it should not
be seen as inevitable.
Sustained political effort can yield results. But success requires
engaging and interest and support of a large number of people.
Governmental representatives can easily ignore the noise from a small group
of concerned programmers; they need to hear from a wider constituency
before they will pay attention. Somehow we need to get Aunt Tillie worried
about copyright law. That is going to be a difficult task, but it's
an important one.
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