Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Stallman, Lessig, Karl and Me


On Monday I trekked down to Palo Alto and Stanford Law School to hear Richard Stallman speak about the General Public License version 3. Though I missed the first 20 minutes due to south bay area traffic & construction as well as construction on the campus, I heard many of the salient points he addressed like software patents, "Tivoization," Digital Rights Management, and the GPLv3's compatibility with other free software licenses such as the Apache license.

Much as I expected, Stallman was a passionate, almost strident, supporter of software freedom who tends toward the melodromatic, as he described, because that his how he feels about freedom. This is why Stallman and the Free Software Foundation are so important to the free software movement. Their position is uncompromising and one that polarizes. Yes, it is extreme in the sense of "live free or die," but without such extremes change would be slow, difficult or nonexistent.

I think of this polarizing catalytic effect by analogizing to the concept of an "absolute zero" temperature. The theoretical temperature of "absolute zero" is the coldest temperature possible. I think of rms and the FSF's philosophy about software freedom as the theoretical "absolute zero" temperature of truly free software, always pulling heat away from proprietary software. The reason it is good they are in that position is that if they were not so extreme ("absolute") the movement away from proprietary ("hot") software toward true freedom in software would happen more slowly or not at all.

Even though Stallman objects to the use of the term "open source" (he corrected me and others more than once when we used it) to describe the type of software that embraces these principles of freedom, that term is widely used and has been standardized and adopted by many in the software industry and business community. Some use the acronym "FOSS" (Free and Open Source Software) to describe this type of software. I tend to lean toward using "open source," mainly because it is what many people recognize as being different from proprietary closed-source programs, so while I recognize the distinction between "free software" and "open source," apologies to rms on the use.

Larry Lessig

I had hoped to see Larry Lessig on campus also, as he is one of my most-admired authors on subjects related to law and the Internet. Indeed, he was at Stallman's presentation and graciously signed my original hardcover 1999 edition of the first book of his I ever read, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace.

In addition to being an author and law professor, he maintains a blog which discusses relevant and interesting issues on many topics. He also helped found the now-ubiquitous Creative Commons, which offers a common-sense balance of copyright license options for artists and their creative works. He's also done a few other things like found Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society, clerk for a U.S. Supreme Court Justice (Scalia) and argue a critically important copyright case before the U.S. Supreme Court (Eldred v. Ashcroft). More interesting details are in this 2002 profile in Wired magazine.

Brandy Karl

Last but certainly not least, I was able to meet Brandy Karl, attorney and blogger, whom I met online after discovering her blog a number of years ago. Before taking a position as a Residential Fellow at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet & Society (one of the coolest job titles ever) she was a copyright attorney in Boston, MA. She also used to write for findlaw.com when she was a law student. In fact I think I found her blog after reading this piece about her transformation from an anonymous "especially sharp law student" to full-fledged attorney with her own practice.

I found out about this talk by Stallman by spotting it on Brandy's public calendar.

The campus

If you've never been to Stanford's campus, it's a worthwhile visit just to take a walk around. The scenery and architecture is some of the most beautiful you will see.

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