28 January 2009

Take this Survey: It's the Law

As I've noted before, free software stands in an odd relationship with the law that governs it. On the one hand, free software could not exist sustainably without copyright - the GNU GPL depends on it for its power. On the other, copyright - and, even more, patents - are intellectual monopolies that represent the antithesis of everything that free software stands for.

Given that tension, it's clearly a good idea to understand how that works out on the ground, among the people who have to negotiate the legal minefields hemming in the act of coding. Sadly, there's not much research in this area, an omission that Thomas Otter hopes to remedy:

I’m labouring away at what must be one of the longest part-time PhDs ever. My research is looking at how software code and law work or don’t work together. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. In order to add a bit of empirical juice to will be a rather dry theoretical legal tome, I’ve decided to do a survey.

He's particularly keen to get people from the world of free software participating in order to complement those from more traditional areas. You can find the survey here: it's not very onerous, and doesn't delve too deeply into anything heavy (I've filled it in and lived to tell the tale). And if you're looking for an incentive to do so beyond adding to the cairn of knowledge, both the raw results of the survey and Otter's analysis will be freely available later this year.


Thomas said...

Thanks for the link and kind words.

glyn moody said...

Glad to help; I look forward to the results.

Crosbie Fitch said...

Glyn, please try to avoid perpetuating the illogical bootstrap that in order to restore the public's liberty via the GPL, we need to retain the law of copyright that suspends that natural right to liberty in the first place.

See my other comments on this here:

glyn moody said...

Well, the GNU GPL works thanks to copyright *at the moment*, so I think we need copyright - albeit minimally - until we change it.

I've asked RMS about this, and here's what he said:

"I would be glad to see the abolition of copyright on software if it were done in such a way as to ensure that software is free. After all, the point of copyleft is to achieve that goal for derivatives of certain programs. If all software were free, copyleft would not be needed for software.

However, abolishing copyright could also be done in a misguided way that would have no effect on typical proprietary software (which is restricted by EULAs and source code secrecy rather than copyright), and only undermines the practice of copyleft. Naturally I wouldbe against that.

In other words, I am more concerned with how the law affects users' freedom than with what happens to copyright as such."

Crosbie Fitch said...

Thanks for that Glyn. :)

I'd certainly agree that the right to liberty and free speech is inalienable, so an EULA (or even an actual contract voluntarily entered into) cannot enable the customer of software to alienate themselves from their right to liberty, to share and build upon the software they purchase.

However, there is a natural right to privacy. I could not endorse any law that made it a crime (or even the infringement of a privilege) to publish a binary without source code. Even so, given that corporations are not human, consequently have no rights, and should certainly not be privileged above their human staff, there would be no ability for a corporation to prosecute its employees for disclosing source code to which they were privy, i.e. at least its authors.

Together with the abolition of patents (at least on software), and given the state's protection of natural rights (life,privacy,truth, liberty - without derogating these with commercial privilege), it's looking like RMS is nigh on agreeing with the position that copyright is not necessary for free software, i.e. that free software can indeed "exist sustainably without copyright". We just have to be careful that other iniquitous privileges neither remain nor become created instead.

glyn moody said...

RMS is nigh on agreeing with the position that copyright is not necessary for free software, i.e. that free software can indeed "exist sustainably without copyright".

Yes, I think so; it's just that the quickest way to achieve what he really wants - software freedom - involves a little creative hacking of copyright.