Free Software, the Public Domain, and the People Who Don’t Get It

This article on free software by a Mozilla Foundation staffer (or is he a bannana seller?) is really really funny. Or tragic. Or both.

A little while ago, I received an e-mail from a lady in the Trading Standards department of a large northern town. They had encountered businesses which were selling copies of Firefox, and wanted to confirm that this was in violation of our licence agreements before taking action against them.

I wrote back, politely explaining the principles of copyleft — that the software was free, both as in speech and as in price, and that people copying and redistributing it was a feature, not a bug. I said that selling verbatim copies of Firefox on physical media was absolutely fine with us, and we would like her to return any confiscated CDs and allow us to continue with our plan for world domination (or words to that effect).

Unfortunately, this was not well received. Her reply was incredulous:

“I can’t believe that your company would allow people to make money from something that you allow people to have free access to. Is this really the case?” she asked.

“If Mozilla permit the sale of copied versions of its software, it makes it virtually impossible for us, from a practical point of view, to enforce UK anti-piracy legislation, as it is difficult for us to give general advice to businesses over what is/is not permitted.”

On a more serious note, the same cast of mind is visible at WIPO, where it can do far more damage. As EFF notes,

Intellectual property rights are supposed to promote the same goals [“a rich and accessible public domain” -mf], but you’d never know it from the comments of some participants who seemed to fundamentally misunderstand the essential relationship between IP and the public domain. Apparently under the mistaken impression that the public domain is the opposite of intellectual property, these participants claimed that the proposal was outside WIPO’s mandate.

EFF’s (and Jamie Love & Jamie Boyle’s) work is transforming WIPO one post at a time:

The public interest groups continue to subversively write down what’s going on and publish it, something that WIPO’s Secretariat once described as “abusing WIPO’s hospitality” — normally, the Secretariat would release a report six months after the fact, once everyone quoted in it had the chance to revise the report of what they’d said. EFF and others publish their account of the WIPO deliberations daily — twice a day, when it’s going hot and heavy — and it gets slashdotted, read by delegates’ bosses in their capitols, and distributed. It has a genuinely disruptive effect on the orderly dividing-and-conquering of the world that’s underway there.

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