Friday, March 07, 2008

Free as in Human

As Richard Stallman writes in his definition of free software:
Free software is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of free as in free speech, not as in free beer.
This definition applies to far more than just software. Not every good, service, and asset needs to be privatized - that's not what democracy means. You can't, for example, sell your vote, or your rights. From Lawrence Lessig's The Future of Ideas, here are some more:
Think of music on the radio, which you consume without paying anything. Or the roads that you drive upon, which are paid for independently of their use. Or the history that we hear about without ever paying the researcher. They too cost money to produce. But we organize access to these resources differently from the way we organize access to chewing gum. To get access to these, you don't have to pay up front. Sometimes you don't have to pay at all. And when you do have to pay, the price is set neutrally or without regard to the user, inside or outside the company. And for good reason, too. Access to chewing gum might rightly be controlled all the way down; but access to roads, and history, and control of our government must always, and sensibly, remain "free."
Private ownership is critical to democracy, but not all resources are created equal. Nor were all consumers; how many of us could win a bidding war against a corporation? The ability of large economic entities to pool money and focus it to acquire resources is one reason some must always remain free.

More controversially, think about legal representation. Our justice system is supposd to be blind, yet clearly some lawyers are much more skilled and connected than others. How fair is it that the best lawyers charge high prices, and therefore can only be afforded by the wealthy and the corporations? Why, for example, aren't lawyers assigned randomly, so that you have as much chance of getting F. Lee Bailey as O.J. Simpson did?

Sunday, March 02, 2008

"Intellectual Property"

From the excellent but infuriating book The Future of Ideas by Lawrence Lessig, a nice capsule of the point of the book:
But you can believe in copyright without believing copyright should be perpetual. You can believe in patents without believing that everything under the sun should be patented. You can believe in these tools to inspire innovation without believing these tools should become so bloated as to destroy the opportunity for innovation.

I believe in this balance. So did the framers of our Constitution. This battle is about whose vision of creativity - the balance in our framers' vision or the extremism of modern lobbyists - should control the future of ideas.
For those who are curious (should be everyone) about what our Constitution says about copyright and patent. From Article I (The Legislative Branch), Section 8 (Powers of Congress):
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;
To promote the progress of science and useful arts. That is the only purpose behind granting this power. Not to protect "property," which ideas are not. The goal is progress, for the people. And the above doesn't even imply that copyright and patent should be transferable to corporations - the right above is granted only to authors and inventors, not publishers and employers.

For limited times. This was intended to be far short of the current copyright term, which extends beyond the life of the holder and can reach 150 years without much effort. And that's if Congress doesn't extend it, which it's done dozens of times in the last 100 years.

From Thomas Jefferson's letter to James Madison dated July 31, 1788, talking about the content of the Bill of Rights:

"... it is better to establish trials by jury, the right of Habeas corpus, freedom of the press and freedom of religion in all cases, and to abolish standing armies in time of peace, and monopolies, in all cases, than not to do it in any... The saying there shall be no monopolies lessens the incitements to ingenuity, which is spurred on by the hope of a monopoly for a limited time, as of 14 years; but the benefit even of limited monopolies is too doubtful to be opposed to that of their general suppression."

Jefferson seems to be implying that even 14 years was a dicey proposition - the most that he would support, because of the doubtful benefits. And I'm not sure he conceived of an era in which most creative works would be owned by large corporations, and in which patent cross-licensing contracts dominated corporate relations with no benefit to the public.

Finally, from Jefferson's letter to Isaac McPherson in 1831:
If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.
Ideas are not property, and control of them stifles innovation, to the detriment of the world.