A summary of the threats to our way of life

published Jan 25, 2006, last modified Jun 26, 2013

OK, so the Cold War is over. Mutually assured destruction is no longer a big concern. People are now living longer and enjoying better, more fulfilling lives. What in the entire world could possibly warrant such an alarming title for an article?


Yes. The world of software is under heavy attack, from three distinct fronts. But let's not get carried away — we'll get to the three fronts soon.

Software? Why should I care about software?

Why is software important? Look around! I bet there's something with software in the room you're sitting in. You use software every day. Whether you write an e-mail to a friend, you push a few buttons on your microwave, or you hit the brakes on your car, software is there to assist you.

Free software is even more important. Free software is the cornerstone of a free society, a society where your human rights are respected. You can argue about the pragmatic advantages of unfree software, but it's clear that unfree software does not integrally help the cause of human rights. It may be good, but it's just not good enough. Hence, it's in your best interests to keep this software out there, in the open.

Yet, the three fronts steadily squeeze the freedom ouf of what little free software is there for us.

Enemy division 1: software powerhouses wielding and pushing for software patents

Software patents are one of the biggest concerns for free software. Unlike copyrights, which are regularly used to restrict the copying of an expression (be it software, recordings, books or other types of works), patents poison an idea (more accurately, an implementation of an idea) for an extremely long period of time.

Originally built on the idea of fostering creativity by rewarding inventors, the patent system has been subverted. Inventors can no longer afford to create something out of sheer brilliance. The costs of getting a patent granted are staggering. This usually means that the inventor gets a fairly low share of the proceeds from his invention (as granted by any patent that may cover it). This also means that patents get pooled on big corporate conglomerates, and litigation is extremely expensive. A single threat of litigation can (and currently does) discourage would-be inventors from being more creative.

Moreover, patent licenses last comparatively too long, nearly everywhere in the world. All this time, the rate of innovation has grown exponentially, but the. Given that any modern innovation is heavily dependent on previous innovations, there's little room to mix and match without stepping on someone else's toes (namely, other patent holders).

This is critical for software. Software patents cannot be. We simply cannot tolerate them.

We cannot tolerate them because software is special: software creation is the only one of the few disciplines where each invention is heavily dependent on previous inventions. You actually need to resort to previous inventions or work around them (often suboptimally). Combine this with the current trend of software patents being granted for "innovations" too broad "to be true", and you've got yourself a recipe for wrenching the gears of a very delicate ecosystem.

We also cannot tolerate software patents because they inherently break free software. When someone gets a software patent on something free software has implemented or is implementing, the entire field is automatically banned for free software developers (in some countries, for thirty years or more).

Thus, software patents are against common sense and public good.

You may not be aware of how critical the situation is. But it is. I believe we're a few years away from reaching a critical "tipping point" in the software patent détenté. I just hope software patent reform catches up with the circumstances. But it's a long shot. You and I may not have the money to fund political campaigns for parties interested in eliminating software patents. Patent-wielding conglomerates and pools do. Guess who's got the upper hand here?

Enemy division 2: media conglomerates wielding and pushing for DRM (digital restrictions management) and trusted computing

Digital restrictions management (also known, depending on the point of view, as digital rights management) is an umbrella concept. It describes a complex system with the explicit purpose of restricting copying of information.

Trusted (or trustworthy) computing is also an umbrella concept. It describes a complex system where your hardware needs third-party authorization before performing certain operations, and your operating system assists the third-party authorization process.

Guess who's giving the authorization? Not you.

As of today, DRM plus trusted computing is a media company's wet dream combo — it's the only way to assure them sales of their media products. Why? That's an easy question: if you and I cannot lend to each other songs, movies or recorded shows, media companies can expect us to go to them instead.

As you can see, it's all a matter of creating artificial scarcity where there was abundance. It's the natural progression of a capitalist system with great imbalances (and please note, I'm not criticizing capitalism here — I'm simply pointing at the imbalances). Left to its own devices, the system would eventually create scarcity in air and water as well. It's about extracting profits from a formerly unprofitable endeavor. Never mind that, just maybe, logic says their business model may be fundamentally broken in this, our Information age.

And how does it work? Your operating system and applications do the policeman's job, cooperating (in the near future, thanks to trusted computing), with your legally bought hardware. Attempt to copy a song off your hard disk, or send it through MSN Messenger, and you'll get a nice error dialog, with a cross embedded on a red circle. Maybe, just maybe, that'll trigger a law enforcement request in the background (but, who knows, the jury's literally still out on that one). If you actually manage to rip a song off the claws of the operating system, you'll discover that it won't play on your favorite friend's stereo. Play back an unauthorized video, and the monitor will paint a blue square on that screen area. Read an unauthorized book, and you'll run afoul of your local unfriendly policeman.

How bad is it? It's a very bleak future. No wonder Richard Stallman prefers the term treacherous computing.

Those are all possible (or current) scenarios, assuming DRM could not be broken.

First, DRM can be broken. Naturally, content companies don't expect 'flawless' DRM. They just wanted a way to keep honest people honest.

What they were forgetting (intentionally, I assume) is that fair use already entitled people in most countries to liberally swap music, videos, records, tape recordings, or other private renderings and copies of their favorite art forms.

DRM blows away all of that. No more fair use. The have-nots have been guaranteed, through DRM, a poorer life. If this trend succeeds, generosity will probably be remembered as a value from the past.

(Just in case you were wondering: I personally think it's moral to lend to a friend a CD full of MP3 songs. It's the exact equivalent of me giving him a tape recording or a CD I bought.)

What's that got to do with software, you ask? Well, free software will get marginalized. Because, to succeed, DRM requires unfree software. It requires you not to be able to change how the software works, because software is the policeman. And as you know, a policeman bribed is no good.

Enemy division 3: politicians creating assorted laws intended to give you the shaft

In order to support the monstruosities of Enemy divisions 1 and 2, assorted legislation is being drafted, voted and passed around the world. Laws like the DMCA (forbidding reverse-engineering and decryption), the EU Copyright Directive, the SSSCA and other regulations like the broadcast flag or outrageous bans on free software will be affecting your computing environment very soon.

These laws and regulations are fundamentally incompatible with free software. You see, this type of legislation is aimed not at controlling illegal (but still perfectly moral) acts, but to control your computing environment, and your software. To place boundaries between what you can do, and what you cannot do, in the literal sense of the word can: that it will become impossible, in the medium-term future, to circumvent these laws, even on exceptional cases, because the software will be the policeman, and you won't be able to change the software to suit your needs better.

In short

Of course, free software will continue to exist, so long as interested individuals exist. But the threats to free software are getting stronger every time.

The biggest risk for us is to become marginalized. As of today, we're regarded as marginal consumers. Will we be regarded as marginal people too?

Think about that.

There's a followup to this story: Turning the tide on the threats to our way of life, because, as the saying goes, If you're not a part of the solution, you're a part of the problem.