Open-source backer: Software a 'renewable' resource

He's so serious about open source that he's never used Windows or the Mac OS

As a lawyer, law professor and software programmer, Eben Moglen is passionate about technology, software and user freedom. A former board member of the Free Software Foundation and the founder, president and executive director of the Software Freedom Law Center in New York since 2005, Moglen has worked to protect and advance open source and free software. Moglen, 48, is a Connecticut native who grew up in Manhattan and began programming for pay at the age of 13. Eventually, he worked as a developer at IBM to put himself through college and law school. A longtime friend of free software advocate, Richard Stallman, Moglen recently talked with Computerworld about his work, his belief in open source and what he sees as the changing future of software in the world economy.

How did you get so passionate about free and open-source software?

When I went to law school in the fall of 1980, I thought that I was in all likelihood, like my mother, going to be a university professor. I didn't think I was going to be either a practicing lawyer or a practicing programmer. I also thought, however, that the technical environment around me was changing in unfortunate ways. I believed then as a technical matter -- and I still believe -- that the linguistic interaction between human beings and computers afford human beings better ways of knowing and solving problems. [In the early 1990s, after Stallman heard of Moglen's work] he got in touch with me to tell me that he had a legal problem that he needed some help with. Stallman, knowing I was available to do that sort of work for him for free, sent me some more work to do. And I realized that he had the best listening post on the planet. And everybody who had problems concerning the technical embodiment of control or freedom, everybody who had an interest in the philosophy of freedom in technology, they all knew one e-mail address [Stallman's], and I realized that if he forwarded to me everything that to him seemed to need a lawyer's attention, I would be able over time to gain a really thorough knowledge of what needed doing.

This was the journey -- from IBM to developing software to dealing with legal issues -- that brought you to your present work?

Yes. The skills I acquired as a lawyer, as a historian, as a programmer -- they came together in doing this work. The issues about software were then as they are now, merely one layer in a layer cake. They are a crucial layer because the network that we live in is made out of software. But the network itself, the growing interconnection of people in society, the issues of privacy as secrecy, privacy as anonymity and privacy as autonomy were all crucial -- as was the question of how to save software from the harm done to it [by] excessive privatization.

What's the biggest danger to open-source software today?

On the one hand, there's still a locust of resistance. Microsoft still maintains strongly the view that its business model, which depends upon concealing source code from users, is a viable and important and necessary model. And as long as a company that sells a billion dollars a week in software is fundamentally still trying to [fight] the free way of doing things, Microsoft remains a very dangerous party. But Microsoft, too, has now fundamentally recognized that there is not another generation left in the proprietary software idea and [it is] trying to move to a world in which it can leverage the remaining value of its monopoly in a world of mixed free and unfree code. As Microsoft begins to move itself away from being the primary partisan of unfreedom, the second most important partisans of unfreedom slot into place and they are the owners of culture, the Disneys and the other major movie studios who have a great deal of image-making authority in the world -- and a great deal to lose from the obliteration of their distribution mechanisms.

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