22 February 2007

Watch Out, There's a Weasel Word About

This blog has constantly warned readers to be on their guard against weasel words whose unexceptionable and generalised nature betray an intent to redefine. A classic example - double-barrelled to boot - is the Progress & Freedom Foundation, which has absolutely nothing to do with freedom as Richard Stallman would understand it, and as a concomitant, precious little to do with progress either.

As its About page makes clear, freedom means the right to impose intellectual monopolies - or, as it quaintly puts it:

the "imperative" to protect rich digital content and encourage innovation through the traditional legal notions of copyright and patent.

Hm, that's a new one: the imperative to impose intellectual monopolies. Not much freedom there, methinks. The other key phrases to note are "market-oriented policy" and "Applying benefit-cost analysis to proposals for regulation of the market for personal information" - so you can forget about any right to privacy: if it's profitable, it's good.

No surprise, then, that one of the foundation's luminaries has written an oh-so-reasonable defence of the Microsoft-Novell stitch-up. Except that it is fundamentally flawed, despite its reasonable tone.

Its central argument in favour of the oh-so-reasonable Microsoft-Novell stitch-up is as follows:

Customers also want freedom from concern about potential intellectual property problems. They do not want to worry whether someone might come out of left field claiming the right to enjoin some mission-critical application.

- and yes, there's that tell-tale little word "freedom" again.

So, as a customer, I'm supposed to worry about whether my supplier is infringing on somebody else's intellectual monopoly? Sorry, but I don't care a fig about the intellectual monopolies involved in products that I buy or use: I care about whether they do the job at a reasonable price. I expect the supplier to worry about the legal details - that's partly what I pay for.

Reframing it in these terms attempts to enmesh the user in the battles that try to employ intellectual monopolies as competitive weapons that are the very antithesis of progressive. It is a trick that aims to legitimise and bolster the strength of this approach, by falsely claiming that it matters to the general public. It is true that manufacturers and suppliers do indeed need to worry, unfortunately, but that is a problem, and a reflection of how the original legal frameworks have been distorted by corporate lawyers and greedy industries.

To remedy this situation, we all need to ignore those issues, and fight for minimalist intellectual monopolies - 14 years for copyright, as it was originally, and patents whose scope is narrowed considerably, or, ideally, abolished entirely.

Needless to say, since the premise of the article is mistaken, its conclusion is too: the Microsoft-Novell deal is bad for customers, since it brings in patenting issues where there aren't any. After all, if Microsoft really believed open source infringed on its patents it would go to court, as it routinely has in the past. Are we supposed to believe that Steve Ballmer has come over all magnanimous, and wants to give open source a chance to reform? I think not.

It's also a disaster for Novell, which is now tainted by Redmond's kiss of Judas. Indeed, I strongly suspect that in retrospect it will be seen as the inflection point that began the company's terminal decline.

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