Foot and Mouth, BSE and the Hatfield rail crash could all have been avoided if the British government had the right approach to information sharing, at least according to Richard Stallman. He reckons that all three disasters were largely to do with bad attitudes to data, and that if ministers understood how free software works then they would not be in such a mess now, writes Bill Thompson in Cambridge.
Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and the man who created Emacs, was speaking on the first day of the CODE conference at Queens' College, Cambridge. Not, as you might reasonably expect, a programming-fest, but instead the acronym for 'Collaboration and Ownership in the Digital Environment', CODE has brought together an unusual mix of participants to reflect on the impact free software and open source has had on creativity in the arts, industry and the sciences.
The tension between intellectual property rights, the urge to creativity and the capitalist system certainly needs to be explored, although there was a definite sense in the morning sessions - somewhere amidst the sociological, anthropological and linguistic bullshit that passes for analysis in the more rarefied corridors of the academy - that the hardcore programmers had gone out and built a brave new world of free software and now the academics and lawyers wanted to move in and check out the view.
Stallman was there to put them right. This is a man who treats copyright as damage and routes around it - as Nick Mailer from the Campaign for Unmetered Telecoms found out over lunch when Stallman roasted him for daring to use the non-open Zend PHP compiler, and told him that the only honourable thing to do was to sit down and write his own. For the man who started the GNU project, this probably seems reasonable, but the rest of us could only sit back in awe.
Wearing socks but no shoes, brown canvas trousers and a red polo shirt, Stallman is not as other people. Although his pitch was not new - and he admitted as much - it was probably the first time the academics, artists and lawyers who made up most of the audience had heard it expressed so directly. Pausing only for the obligatory swipe at the UK Government, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and the Private Security Industry Bill (and tipping his hat to FIPR's Caspar Bowden, also in the audience) Stallman went on a gentle meander through the history of copyright, ending at the present day when the media companies own most copyrights and also (he alleges) own the politicians who make the laws that maintain the system.
He reserved most venom for the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act - the Act that makes DeCSS illegal - pointing out that the effect of the DMCA is to give the force of criminal law to the license conditions that publishers decide to put on their products, because breaking encryption schemes to get at the data is an offence. 'There is no limit to how much brutality the owners of information will use to keep control', he said, comparing the DMCA with the state police in the old USSR in their approach to copyright infringement.
Even the highly-paid patent lawyers were applauding at the end, after he said that Napster had finally convinced him that public non-commercial distribution of copyright material should be legal. After all, he argued, copyright law is a bargain between the state and the creator or rights holder, and so far the rights holder has all the advantages.
If there was a problem it was that Stallman takes a totally American view of copyright, seeing it as a set of rules to encourage people to share the products of creativity. He does not discuss - or seem particularly aware of - the European approach in which authors have moral rights which transcend economic factors.
Stallman's call for freedom was listened to carefully, but much of the rest of the first day of the conference was taken up with a discussion of ideas of ownership, the relationship between science and software and explorations of the ways that intellectual property rights can promote creativity as well as inhibit it, and the sort of academic/legal discussion that can cause blindness if you pay too much attention.
While bringing together such a wide mix of attendees was a good idea in theory, some of the speakers seemed unable to break out of their specialisms, and the jargon count was high at times.
But the real excitement was reserved for the afternoon, when copyright lawyer Justin Watts made a reasoned and well-argued presentation on the patent protection, pointing out that while the US system was 'broken' the European approach had its merits.
This provoked Stallman into an extended rant against the whole idea of patenting software, and ended in him leaving the room to shout in the corridor while Professor Bill Cornish, who was chairing, tried to resume the discussion.
While Justin Watts was cool about the interruption, describing it later as 'fun', Stallman did not seem to generate a great deal of sympathy. Tony Nixon from the Open University said that his claims did not seem convincing, and although he spoke from the heart he was not making a coherent case.
Other speakers include Bruce Perens, author of the Open Source Definition, Glyn Moody, whose book 'The Rebel Code' has just been published, and Marilyn Strathern, Professor of Social Anthropology and an expert in non-proprietary forms of ownership. The conference finishes today, Friday 6 April. ®