Lee Bollinger has gotten a lot of criticism for his extremely harsh introduction of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, before a Columbia University audience on September 24th. Most of the criticism has been that it was a rude way to treat a guest. I’m not sure I buy that one: a politician coming to give a speech is not quite the same thing as a guest in one’s home, and anyway Bollinger telegraphed quite clearly in advance that he would not be sparing in his remarks; Ahmadinejad could have cancelled if he were worried about how he would be treated. (For what it’s worth, Ahmadinejad’s own speech contained passages so nonsensical as to be indistinguishable from the sort of insane mumblings that usually cause passers-by to cross to the other side of the street. No, really — check out the transcript. That dude’s a looney!)

Bollinger started his remarks with a detailed explanation of his motives, so there would be no mistaking what he was trying to do. Good for him: he tried to do the right thing. I actually think most of what he said was justified, if a little over-the-top and needlessly ponderous in tone. He made Will Franken very happy, anyway.

Nonetheless, I think Bollinger muffed it. He elevated Ahmadinejad’s importance by attributing Iran’s policies to its president. But everyone knows Ahmadinejad isn’t running the show over there: the mullahs are. When Bollinger said to Ahmadinejad “you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator”, he was exactly wrong. Far from being a dictator, Ahmadinejad is barely a president. He was elected from a filtered set of acceptable candidates (anyone objectionable to the religious council was not allowed on the ballot), and his every move is supervised by those who really run the show. Ahmadinejad is a figurehead; it’s doubtful he could have gotten elected in a truly open field. In a way, it hardly matters that the President of Iran is an incoherent conspiracy theorist with at best a shaky grasp of science and history — even were he a savant, he would effect little good, so perhaps it’s better that he’s an obvious joke.

What I wish Bollinger had asked was “Mr. President, why did you ally yourself with the perversion of democracy by standing for office in an election in which many legitimate candidates were not allowed to run? Do you believe in democracy, and if so, will you publicly call on the religious leaders of Iran to allow truly open and fair elections next time?”

Instead, Bollinger treated Ahmadinejad like he matters, which is exactly what Ahmadinejad wanted. It will probably give him a boost in the polls back home, too. Sigh.

Surprisingly, the verb “wikipudiate” does not seem to exist yet. At least, a Google search turns up no hits. I think I’ll add it to the glossiary:

Wikipudiate: (v) To refute someone by referring them to a Wikipedia article. Ex: “I’ve been wikipudiated!” Alternatively, to deny an assertion of fact on the grounds of its provenance in Wikipedia. Ex: “You’ve been wikipudiated!” (wikipudiation, n)

This Friday I attended a productive and unexpectedly fascinating workshop at UC Berkeley, aimed at developing a model policy for archives that host images — often disturbing and graphic ones — from war zones and other areas of violent conflict. In particular, the Iraq war is generating a lot of such footage (it’s the first war in which many of the participants carry portable video cameras), and archivists understandably feel conflicting responsibilities about how to handle the deluge of material. On the one hand, they don’t want to be in the position of helping terrorists disseminate recruiting material, nor do they want to further hurt the feelings of family members of those whose deaths are shown in some of these videos and still photos. On the other hand, they’re archivists, after all: their mission is to preserve and make available all the information they can, not to judge what might or might not be valuable to future historians.

The meeting was organized by Jeff Ubois, who has worked with the Internet Archive and other repositories of digital images. The Internet Archive has to deal with these kinds of questions every day, and wanted to stop making their decisions ad hoc and in isolation from other archivists in similar situations.

Peter Brantley of the Digital Library Federation has already written a detailed blog entry about the workshop, I won’t repeat here his excellent description of the discussion and its conclusion. But I would like to talk a little about why the issue is so complex, and how it is that sixteen people can spend seven hours in a room debating just this one topic, in the end producing just a 67-word draft policy that basically says “We’ll take feedback from users, we’ll try to do the right thing, and we’ll try to err on the side of more access rather than less”. I think it was a good outcome, too: this was one of those rare instances when one can say that the process was more important than the result and really mean it.

I started out the meeting thinking “Well, obviously if a family member or loved one asks an archive to take down footage of their child being tortured or blown to bits, that’s an easy call: take it down. How important can it be, after all, that it’s worth adding insult to those already injured so much?” Annalee Newitz of Techsploitation, while understanding that sentiment, responded that the historical record has a value too. That footage might be the only footage of some important event (say, the equivalent of a My Lai massacre, though Annalee didn’t use that example), and it’s simply not good enough to have a policy that takes into account how much someone will be hurt, without also taking into account the intrinsic worth of archival materials to future historians and researchers.

That really got me thinking. What is the intrinsic worth of these kind of materials?

A person who grows up in a war zone — say, a child growing up in Baghdad today — may see things on a weekly basis that others never encounter in their entire lives. The child in a war zone does not “see” them on a computer screen, but in life: in the street, on the way to school or to a friend’s house. But even an image on a computer screen is much closer to real experience than a description would be. One thing this meeting made very clear (partly via the small but effective selection of images sent around to prepare participants for what they would be dealing with) is that a verbal description of an image simply cannot have the same impact as the image itself. I’ve heard gory descriptions of public beheadings before, but what will stick in my mind forever is certain video footage I saw exactly once. It’s not merely that it’s more graphic than a prose description; it’s a different level of sensory experience altogether.

I think this implies that there may be no way to understand what that child in Baghdad is going through except through seeing what’s actually happening there. Thus there may be no way to understand the adult that child will become, except through these images.

A decade or two from now, we may be wondering why it is that Iraqis have chosen (or at any rate acquiesced to) a new tyrant of more or less the same type as Saddam Hussein, who was himself more or less the same type as Joseph Stalin and many others throughout history. If that day comes, the footage we have from Iraq today will go a long way toward helping us understand how it happened. Even today, a number of people in Iraq are starting to say that as bad as it was under Saddam, it was better than now. I realize it may not be a majority — and I hope it never becomes one — but that even a statistically significant portion of people would say that should be a clue that something has gone badly wrong. And I’m not sure how a historian would get inside their heads, now or in the future, without access to images of what those people were exposed to. Interviews with foreign correspondents and “embedded journalists” won’t cut it. Even interviews with natives won’t do the job. You have to come as close as you can to the real experience, and for that, these archives are the best we have. We censor them at the risk of our own understanding.

As promised, my chapter from O’Reilly’s Beautiful Code book is now online under a free license:

Subversion’s Delta Editor: Interface as Ontology

Of course, no chapter on programming would be complete without tree diagrams…

Beautiful Code, Chapter 2 (page 13)

Beautiful Code, Chapter 2 (pages 14 and 15)

Since all the authors’ fees are being donated to Amnesty International, an unexpected result of writing a chapter for this book is that I feel I can finally use those return-address labels Amnesty International is always sending me in their fundraising letters. I hadn’t donated before — they’re a good cause, but there are a lot of good causes and I’ve been sending my money elsewhere. However, now that O’Reilly is effectively donating in my name, I don’t have to print my own address labels if I’m short on time: I can, without guilt, use the rather nice ones that have been arriving for free in the mail for years.

It was time.

There were stacks of books sitting on the floor, for lack of space to shelve them. Even I could no longer deny it: a purge was required, my first in fifteen years (the last one was in college).

Quite aware that I lacked the willpower to do it on my own, I begged Lev to come over and help. He agreed, and showed up mid-morning with a bright smile and a ready whip hand — exactly what the situation called for. Our rule was that a book could stay iff I might reread it, refer to it, lend it, or recommend it to someone else. If a book did not meet at least one of these criteria, it was politely but firmly to be shown the door. (More than once Lev had to remind me of the rules.) We both fell into the trap of starting to read in and talk about the books, but fortunately always managed to extricate ourselves before it was too late.

Here’s Lev when we were nearly finished, with about two-thirds of the discards:

Lev, posing with the discard pile.

(There are a few piles not shown, from bookshelves elsewhere in the apartment.)

Afterwards, we used Lev’s car (because it’s both a sports car and a station wagon) to drive the books…

The books packed into Lev's car.

…over to Valencia Street, where we divided them between Dog-Eared Books and Modern Times Bookstore.

Neither store accepts computer books, so I emptied those four bags (containing mostly obsolete O’Reilly manuals, but also recent ones that I just finally had to admit to myself I’d never have time to use) into the free bin outside Dog-Eared Books. Then I went back inside to negotiate with the owner, made a quick trip across 20th street to Modern Times to ask a few questions, then back to talk to Dog-Eared a bit more… Meanwhile, every so often I’d glance outside at the free bin on the sidewalk, and see someone leafing through one of the computer books I’d just dumped in there. The whole process couldn’t have taken more than twenty minutes, tops, but when it was done, I looked over again at the free bin — and all the computer books were gone.

Tells you something about the demographics of the Mission district, don’t you think? They may look like hipsters, but don’t be fooled: they’re all working for Yahoo.

I don’t normally do “What’s Karl been up to lately?” posts, feeling that people would probably rather read short articles on specific topics. But the last three weeks have been unusually busy and interesting, and they have kept me from posting anything at all. So now I’m writing a post just to say what I’ve been up to. For those who are interested in that: enjoy! For everyone else: I understand completely if you decide to move along to a different blog now. This is just going to be straight news about my life, not commentary on current events.

Three weeks ago, I went to OSCON up in Portland. It was terrific, one of the best I’ve attended. The keynotes were particularly strong this year; my favorites were:

That first speaker, Rick Falkvinge, is the founder and leader of the Swedish Pirate Party, a political party based on radical copyright and patent reform that has started to have an electoral impact in Sweden.

Full disclosure, with undisguised relish: my organization, QuestionCopyright.org, arranged Rick’s trip to the U.S. After he gave his keynote at OSCON, and co-presented a session on copyright reform with me the next day, we drove down to San Francisco, where he spoke at various venues in the Bay Area for the next week. Videos of his talks are online, and while he was in town, News.com did an interview with him too. Rick stayed at my place, and we had a truly memorable week. It turns out you can devote yourself to copyright reform and still have a good time; who knew?

Also at OSCON, I sat on the Art of Community session panel, organized by Dawn Foster and Danese Cooper and moderated by Danese. It ended up being a real discussion, partly due to provocative questions from the audience, partly due to participants who were willing to say unexpected things, and partly because Danese knows who to prod when; check out the video and see for yourself. Other panelists were Jimmy Wales, Dawn Foster, Sulamita Garcia, Whurley, and Brian Behlendorf (forgive me for not making links for them all, but hey, who needs links when we have search engines, right?)

While OSCON was in town, Powell’s Technical Books and O’Reilly Media arranged a panel at the bookstore, with an editor and several authors from the new book Beautiful Code, and moderated by the inimitable Ward Cunningham. The other panelists were Andy Oram, Greg Kroah-Hartmann, Simon Peyton Jones. It was standing room only and a lot of fun — again with a very provocative audience. That’s one thing I like about having open source hackers be my social set: they’re not shy about saying what they really think. (Never change, never change!)

A final bit of OSCON news. I got the heck surprised out of me: a 2007 Google-O’Reilly Open Source Award (for “Best Community
Builder”). It’s gauche, I guess, to blog about getting an award, but I want to for two reasons. First, since the nominations process is anonymous, I don’t know who to thank for this, so the only way to thank them is to do it here. Whoever you are: thanks, I really appreciate it! Other recipients that night were Pamela Jones, Aaron Leventhal, David Recordon, and Paul Vixie; that’s mighty good company to be in, and I’m honored.

The second reason is that some friends of mine (cough Brian Fitzpatrick cough Zaheda Bhorat cough) managed to pull off an amazing bit of deception. No one ever told me to show up at the awards ceremony; there was not a hint from any source that I should go that night. Somehow they managed to get me to confirm that I was planning to attend (which I was, since I thought there was a chance that someone I knew would win one) without my ever noticing that I’d been asked, or that I’d answered. I don’t even know exactly when they did this. Furthermore, since I hadn’t been told to go, I went in “knowing” that I wasn’t in the running (in fact, I thought I was probably disqualified since I used to work at Google anyway). So they managed to pull off a complete surprise. Nice one :-).

The week after OSCON was a complete blast, with Rick Falkvinge visiting, giving talks all over town about the Swedish Pirate Party (yes, we visited the Pirate Store near my house; how could we not?). I’m hoping to get some pictures from Rick’s camera from that week; I’ll post them when I have them.

And that brings us up to the present, nearly. What I’ve been doing this past week is also exciting, but it’s not done yet, so I’ll wait and blog about it later.

If you made it this far, thanks for listening! Check out Jim’s delightful post about opening a box of books.

…er, well, the book has anyway. My copies of Beautiful Code are here:

Holding Beautiful Code.

Appropriately, the book itself is physically beautiful. And big: at 600 pages, I haven’t read most of the chapters yet. But I’ve been skimming a lot, and diving deep in some places. It’s already my favorite new computer programming book of the year, indeed of the last few years. I could name many chapters that delighted me, but lists of recommendations make the eyes glaze, so let’s go with just one: Chapter 24: Beautiful Concurrency, by Simon Peyton Jones, which was so absorbing it nearly made me miss my stop on the BART going to Berkeley the other day. I haven’t nearly read all 33 chapters yet, of course, so take that as an absolute recommendation, not a comparative one.

As for my own contribution (Chapter 2: Subversion’s Delta Editor: Interface as Ontology), I just got the XML master back from O’Reilly, and I’ll be putting it online under a free license as soon as I get a chance. [Update: this is now done.]

Congratulations to Andy Oram and Greg Wilson, the two editors. This one’s a keeper.

I was going through a pile of papers today and found some old correspondence with the Mathematical Association of America.

In 2004 I purchased from them a copy of Robert M. Young’s wonderful book Excursions in Calculus. I paid by credit card on the web site, I think, or else by phone. Anyway, the point is I paid in advance. The book arrived soon after, and then a while after that I got a bill. Why they sent the bill, I don’t know, since I’d already paid. Which they obviously knew, too, since the bill was for $0.00:

Mathematical Association of America bill for zero dollars.

Maybe they meant it to be a receipt or something?

Anyway, I did what any red-blooded hacker would do when sent a bill for zero dollars by Mathematical Association of America: I paid it…

Zoom on payment amount of Mathematical Association of America bill for zero dollars.

…by check:

Check for zero dollars, written to Mathematical Association of America.

Oh, how I wanted them to deposit it! But they didn’t even try; they sent the check back uncashed. Maybe the MAA is using one of those accounts-receivable clearinghouse services, and it isn’t really their fault. But if you can’t write a check for e + 1 to the Mathematical Association of America, whom can you write one to?

Mathematical Assocation of America response to check for zero dollars.

The handwritten reason for the rejection was totally lame, too: “check needs to be wrote out in US dollars” [sic]. But it was in U.S. dollars! Sheesh, it’s like they’d never seen a π-dollar bill before or something.

If you live in or near San Francisco, please go see Will Franken‘s show at The Marsh as soon as you can. It’s running until August 4th, and it is staggeringly, mind-blowingly brilliant. My friend Lev and I just saw it, and afterwards we could talk of nothing else except how amazing it was.

Here is a map of the area around the Marsh. Their ticket hotline is: +1 (800) 838-3006. Ticket prices are on a sliding scale from $15 (“I’m unemployed”) to $35 (“I just sold my startup to Yahoo”). The show is on three nights a week: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

Is there anything else I can do to make this easier for you? Arrange a limo to pick you up?

Will Franken doing comedy is what Paganini playing the violin must have been like: a master so completely in control of his instrument, his material, and his art that you can only sit in silent, reverent awe. Except that in Franken’s case, you have to sit in silent, reverent awe while simultaneously breaking into uncontrollable fits of side-splitting laughter. You think that’s easy? Try it — I almost cracked a rib.

In the 19th century Robert Schumann, a music critic as well as a composer, apparently made a habit of proclaiming a genius under every rock. Too often he hailed the merely talented as something greater than what they were, so that even when his judgement was sound (as with Chopin) it wasn’t taken seriously enough: a case of the boy who cried wolf a few too many times.

I’ve tried hard not to engage in that sort of review inflation. If you search my blog for the word “genius”, you won’t find any matches before this post. Please understand: this is the moment I’ve been hoarding my credibility for. This is it. I’m cashing in. Will Franken is a genius, a creative artist like no one else I’ve ever seen. He deserves to be world-famous; perhaps he will not be, for the same reasons that American Idol is popular, but if so, don’t let it be because you didn’t go see his show.

I feel dirty even calling it “comedy”… it’s something much deeper (and therefore funnier) than regular stand-up comedy. Many comedians make a good show out of saying the things we all want to say, but don’t because we’re afraid of what other people might think of us. Will Franken makes a great show out of saying the things we don’t say because we’re afraid of what we might think of ourselves.

You know what to do.

A student named Augusto Pedroza posted a comment here recently, a comment containing such a large and complex question that I’ve decided to use this separate blog entry to answer it.

Augusto is a Google Summer of Code student, meaning he’s working in an open source software project this summer. He says that as he reads more and more about patents, copyright, and open source, some questions arise in his mind. I think I know this feeling. After years of working in open source software, I too started asking myself “Hmmm, this open, freedom-based method of development seems to be working out pretty well for software — what else could it work well for?”

The answer, I think, is “everything”. But that’s just an assertion, not an argument. Augusto’s going to need some more details to back it up. Below are his questions, with my responses interleaved.

I’ve been following [QuestionCopyright.org] too. I already read this one: The Promise of a Post-Copyright World. The more I read things about patents, copyright, open source, free source, few questions arise. Maybe you could share some of your points and perhaps indicate some articles that you might find interesting.

My first question is: In what extent are patents, copyright important and necessary? Is it fair that a company or a person who invests precious hours of his own time make his work freely available? or even worse, his new idea might give to well established companies a way to explore a new idea and make a lot of money?. In the other hand is it fair that a company that finds a cure for cancer may be able to patent that to make money while thousands of people suffer and die from this sickness?. I guess in matters of software my question really is, what should be allowed to be patented in order to avoid this huge mess caused by a current poor patent system?

Thanks for taking the time to ask. I think there are actually several questions going on at once here, and before separating them out, I’d like to gently challenge some assumptions you might hold about freedom and about what is “fair”. Take this question:

“Is it fair that a company or a person who invests precious hours of his own time make his work freely available? or even worse, his new idea might give to well established companies a way to explore a new idea and make a lot of money?”

First, when a person releases a work to roam free in the world, the person always gets a benefit from that work: the benefit that comes from being the creator of something people enjoy or find useful. This isn’t just some abstract feeling. I’ve written two books, and in neither case was the monetary reward significant enough to be a motivating factor (in fact, I made a lot less than U.S. minimum wage for the hours I worked). But the books were still very much worth it. They have helped me in concrete ways: I’ve gotten jobs, speaking engagements, conference invitations, etc based on them. Only accurate attribution is needed for this effect to take place, and attribution is unrelated to copy restrictions. Actually, for attribution purposes, it’s much better for the works to be allowed to flow freely on the Internet.

Second, be careful not to confuse “free” in the sense of “everyone has the freedom to copy and make derivatives of the work” with “free” in the sense of “doesn’t cost money”. Most artists don’t earn much money from their work anyway, but those who do mostly earn it from grants, commissions and performance revenues, not from copyright royalties. Even for non-performing, non-grant-seeking artists, there are other ways to fund their work that don’t interfere with others’ freedoms (for example, see the Threshold Pledge system).

It’s true that some artists do earn significant amounts from copyright revenues. But don’t view that as a matter of “fairness” or “rights” — view it as one possible business model out of many. There are other ways artists can and do make money. For example, in the U.S. we don’t do very much taxpayer funding of art; other countries do. Whether or not to fund art through taxes is a decision every taxation group (i.e., nation) must make for themselves. But it’s not a question of fairness, it’s just a policy question.

And what I’m saying is that copyright itself is also just a policy question. Copyright enables a particular business model: a model based on centralized distribution with restrictions on copying. That business model is inherently incompatible with any business model (such as being a DJ) that relies on unrestricted abundance. So we must decide, as a matter of policy, whether we want freedom and abundance, or control and artificial scarcity.

I’m deliberately phrasing that in a slanted way, as an antidote to the bias of asking about “fairness”. Since we already know that artists benefit just from being known as the authors of their works, your original question, I think, can be translated to this: “Is it fair for other people to reap benefits from an artists’ work that the artist doesn’t reap herself? What if those other people even reap more benefit than the artist?”

When you look at it in that light, some interesting answers emerge. For example, do we treat other professions the same way? No. As Justice Stephen Breyer (of the U.S. Supreme Court) has pointed out regarding copyright:

…few workers receive salaries that approach the total value of what they produce. The social value of the work performed by the man who invents the supermarket, the man who clears a swamp, the academic scientist, or the schoolteacher may be much greater than his pay. Moreover, workers in competitive industries make products that sell at prices well below what many of their buyers would be willing to pay for them. We do not feel that owners, managers, or workers in such industries are for this reason morally entitled to higher wages. Indeed, when a worker without competition – perhaps because he is the only doctor in the area, or the only engineer capable of building a certain bridge – could charge a price close to the total value of his services to the buyer, we normally encourage competition, which will force him to charge less.

There is nothing inherently immoral in the fact that many workers are paid less than the social value of what they produce, for much of the excess of social value over persuasion cost is transferred to the consumer in the form of lower prices. It is not apparent that the producer has any stronger claim to the surplus than the consumer or that the author’s claim is any strong than that of other workers. In fact, why is the author’s moral claim to be paid more than his persuasion cost any stronger than the claim of others also responsible for producing his book: the publisher, the printer, the bookseller, and those responsible for the literature in the past that inspired him?

In sum, simply to speak of the “fruits of one’s labor” does not show that the author should be paid more than his persuasion cost or how much more he should be paid. In particular, it does not demonstrate that the amount he receives under existing copyright law is any more “just” than what he would receive without copyright protection or under a different copyright system.

(S. Breyer. “The Uneasy Case for Copyright: A Study of Copyright in Books, Photocopies, and Computer Programs” (1970) 84 Harvard Law Review 281.)

[My thanks to Jacob Tummon, in whose article The Case for the Elimination of Copyright I first encountered that wonderful quote from Breyer.]

It’s interesting that we do not ask this “fairness” question about, say, road workers or doctors. Instead, we observe that they are willing to do what they do for the wages they receive. In some cases we may feel those wages are too low, but this feeling is not dependent on the amount of benefit someone else reaps from the worker’s product — it’s dependent just on the wage itself.

So, then, why is it “worse” when someone’s “new idea might give to well established companies a way to explore a new idea and make a lot of money”? Do you consider it “worse” when a trucking company makes a lot of money using the roads that your tax money built? 🙂 Is the originator of an idea worse off because someone else, somewhere, is successfully exploiting that idea to make money?

I think we should treat creativity the way we treat most other activities that bring varied benefits to different people: by not assuming that one person’s benefit is automatically another’s loss. Life is not a zero-sum game, and neither is the world economy.

Anyway, most creators wouldn’t notice much difference, because they don’t earn a lot from copyright. And it’s not like there would be some shortage of creativity in the world: we’ve had a surplus for a long time now, and it would only be increased by (finally, again) allowing frictionless, unauthorized derivative works, the way we did for most of human history. There’s nothing to be afraid of; the free software / open source movement demonstrates this. The water’s fine,
come on in!

Second question: In your opinion, is there a perfect time to open a source code in order to obtain success as well as be competitive? Had google opened their ideas and source code in the beginning of its existence it would not have created such an empire that is able so sponsor great programs as this one (gsoc). Is it possible to measure positive points and negative points if Microsoft for example, decides to open all their code right now?

I am a big fan of open source development and I have been trying to understand these points in order to show how companies fully based on the proprietary model are able to see their companies as part of a community. I want to show them the risks, the advantages and of course this new exciting way of producing software.

Whose point of view is this question being asked from? 🙂

First of all, I agree that it is probably somewhat to Google’s advantage not to open up their core code — although the advantage is not that great. I suspect most of their market edge comes from their infrastructure and their processes for supporting it. Even if they did open up their code, most competitors couldn’t make much use of it, although perhaps those who want to game their Google rankings could derive some advantage, and spammers could better fight Google’s spam filters!

In general, though, I’m suspicious of chains of logic that say “If Foo Corporation hadn’t done ABC, then they wouldn’t have made so much money, and then they couldn’t support wonderful programs like XYZ.” The same reasoning applies no matter what ABC is — it could be illegal monopolistic practices, arms dealing, whatever.

So when you measure the “positive points and negative points” of someone opening their code, you have to ask: “positive” and “negative” for whom? For the company? For its customers? For society as a whole?

By the way, I’m not making the argument that service providers like Google (and, to some degree, Microsoft) should be forced to open up their code. I do think certain applications should be open source by law (voting software used in public elections, for example, and software that controls medical devices). But the boundary between copyright and trade secret law starts to get very fuzzy, especially when dealing with companies whose software runs on their own servers. So I don’t think Google should be required to open their code. I’m just pointing out that your question, at least the way you asked it, contains an assumption that competitiveness (for a given company) is inherently good, that it should be a primary goal for society.

I don’t think that’s a good assumption. There are no sides here; we don’t have to “balance” the needs of all the “stakeholders” (to use language that economics journalists are so fond of). We just have to figure out what’s best for society, and that’s the only criterion we should consider. Private property itself exists only because we have decided it’s good for society — and note that we have the doctrine of eminent domain, for situations where private property interferes with the public good. (You might take a look at the article Proportional Registration for Copyrights, to see what a system based on these assumptions could look like.)

Now, I know you were partly asking about arguments that for-profit business would be receptive to. There is no general answer to that. You just have to look at each situation and see. Sure, I could write a separate blog entry about the business case for freedom, but I wanted to stick to the social case here, as I think it’s a more important argument. There is no need to worry about business: clearly, for-profit activities can flourish in a world of unrestricted abundance of works of the mind. If someone claim’s they can’t, I’d like to hear why that means we should favor the profits rather than the freedoms! But in the end, it’s a false choice, because there is no conflict between freedom and economic prosperity. There is a conflict between freedom and certain business models.

I hope that helps answer your questions,


P.S. Most of these arguments apply to patents too, but not all of them. Patents and copyrights differ in some important ways. Regarding software patents, and perhaps other kinds as well, this post and this post offer some methods by which one can tell whether a given patent regime is useful to society or not.