"When you were working on a machine like the TX-0, which came with almost no software, everyone would furiously write systems programs to make programming easier - "Tools to Make Tools," kept in the drawer by the console for easy access by anyone using the machine."
-- "Hackers; Heroes of the Computer Revolution" by Steven Levy
There is what I call a "techno-political" movement in the world today called the "Free Software" movement. It is very small in terms of being a "voting block" but it's arguments are very very convincing. It's roots go way back to some of the earliest "computer hackers". The GNU/Linux operating system and it's "free as in speech" liscenses are "products" of this movement.
The Free Software movement believes that "All software should be free". (They mean "free as in speech")
In the early computer lab at MIT where "computer hacking" first began, all software was free. There was a drawer next to the console where all computer programs were deposited. Anyone working on the computer could take those programs out of the drawer, copy them, run them, modify them and put their version back in the drawer so that anyone else could do the same things. That system of free sharing and collaboration worked extremely well in an academic environment and was the default model for early computer science.
As the computer hacking community grew, the drawer was no longer practical but the idea of the drawer - that all computer code should be free for anyone to use and to make derivateive works from that would also remain free - remained, at least in some people's minds. Most prominently, it remained in the mind of Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation.
So when people like Bill Gates started computer companies like Microsoft who only distributed their software in a form that could not be modified - and demanded that no one else be allowed to redistribute their work - this disturbed some people. It was felt that such practices were "stealing from the drawer" (my own paraphrase) that which belonged in the "Free Software" drawer.
Their main method of combatting these practices is to create "Free Software" that will allow them the freedoms they want.
I think that is excellent. I use "Free Software" programs much of the time. GNU/Linux is still beyond me but I'm a big fan of some of the really great "Free Software" projects that have been ported to Windows, like OpenOffice.org, (I'm never paying for Office again!) Audacity, VLC Media Player and 7-Zip.
Those programs are "free" not because nobody is allowed to charge money for them. They are free because everyone (not just their creators) is allowed to charge money for them, so as a consequence, hardly anyone does. They are also "free" because anyone, including you, is allowed to modify these programs and redistribute your new (hopefully improved) version under the same terms as the original. You can download all of the programs for free (as in price) without breaking any law at all. In fact, that is what their creators want you to do - or else they would not have made the programs free.
Thus, they have re-established the drawer. But it doesn't stop there. The message "all software should be free" means that not only should they be allowed to donate their software to the drawer - it implies that everyone should be OBLIGATED to keep their software in the drawer. If they don't, they're stealing from the drawer.
I should reiterate that the term "stealing from the drawer" is one that I invented to describe what Free Software advocates claim that proprietary software programmers are doing to the software when they insist on exclusive rights.
This "stealing from the drawer" accusation might not only apply to software. It could also be made about record labels, movie studios and publishing companies. Some of the practices of these companies disturb me but not for the same reasons they disturb the Free Software advocates. I think "Free Software" is a good thing to have but I do not believe that "All software should be free" - at least not immediately.
In this blog, I am going to write down my thoughts about the practices of "stealing from the drawer" and to what degrees I believe these practices are right or wrong and why. I have not entirely yet made up my mind on these issues, so I hope that through feedback I recieve from other people, I might be able to clear some of it up.
To understand some of my arguments you should probably read some of the books I have read on the subject. I do not nessicarily agree with the views expressed in these works (Indeed, I stongly disagree with many of them) but reading them will help you understand the multiple sides of the issues.
1. "Free Culture" by Lawrence Lessig. Read this if you read nothing else on the subject! I mostly agree with the core arguments of the book as they pertain to intellectual property.
2. "Hackers; Heroes of the Computer Revolution" by Steven Levy, is an excellent history of computer hacking.
3. "Free Software, Free Society" by Richard Stallman. I agree that many of the problems Stallman points out with the proprietary software model are real problems but I do not agree with many of Stallman's solutions to the problems.
4. "The Scratchware Manifesto" - I have serious issues with the gaming industry and also see many of the problems this "manifesto" brings up. I also laugh at the total absurdity of some of their claims - alot of it is clearly rubbish. But they are an example of a group that sees the problems of the current system but has different solutions for them other than total software freedom.
5. "Masters of DOOM" is the history of "id Software" which was the game company that created Wolfenstein 3D, DooM, Quake and Quake 2. The graphic engines of those games started out as proprietary shareware but were later released as free software. While I personally don't appreciate the violence and gore in some of their titles, it is the business model and some of the unorthadox business practices (such as shareware distrabution) that I admire.
6. "Anarchism Triumphant: Free Software and the Death of Copyright" by Eben Moglen. I don't nessicarily agree with any of the points in this document but it is a good representation of the "anarchist" anti-copyright view, which is actually quite popular today among internet users despite it's extremism.
Also, understanding the "Capitalism vs Socialism" debate and basic American conservative/liberal politics in general is definately a requirement.
I will try not to get too technical in either the legal or the electronic senses of the word, partially because I don't want to confuse people and partly because I probably won't know what I'm talking about myself if I try.