Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Reflections on Software Freedom and ethics.

"Everything is permissible, but not everything builds up".
-- 1 Corinthians 10:23

"Nothing is true, everything is permissible."
-- Hassan i Sabbah

We usually expect things like criminal law to reflect general social ideas about what constitutes criminal behavior. The trouble comes when special interests try to influence legislators to pass the cost of enforcing their interest to the public purse by turning anything against that interest into a criminal act in law ... particularly without regard for the popular conception for what constitutes a criminal act.

Where an act is not generally considered to be criminal - we may still restrict it if there is a general perception of greater-harm in allowing a few to misuse their freedom. So, some (many?) people are prepared to accept searches and restricted carry-on items at airports for fear that some may misuse their "freedom of carry" to, say, blow up the plane.

This is why we are subject to all that propaganda about how it is really bad to infringe media and software licence terms however draconian. Convincing people that copyright infringement really is a theft, in the same way that stealing a handbag or a car is theft, will make it easier for licence purveyors to justify, to the public, their restrictions ... and easier to shift the cost of enforcing those restrictions to the public purse in the form of criminal charges.

The fact is that changes in technology have made acts which have been more-or-less in the background, like lending a favorite book, or sharing a mix-tape, that have always been considered ethical, so much easier that old-style copyright restrictions become too expensive to enforce. You can't keep prosecuting your customers - and they can't pay the fines, so what are you to do?

Business is pretty Darwinian - the fitness landscape changes and you have to mutate to survive. You shift your costs and generally play for time, hoping the change is transient or that you can find a working strategy. Those who try to add further restrictions, criminalize aspects of sharing etc. are gambling that the changes are transient - they are pulling their heads in, battening down the hatches. It has worked before I guess. But, this time they have it badly wrong: they are gambling that sharing is a temporary social aberration. It isn't. The temporary condition was always going to be the restricted sharing model that they have been able to exploit for so long.

We are in a transition period - a period of marked diversification. We should expect the field to thin out as those strategies which are unsuccessful in meeting the challenges of the new technologies die out, and reveal new species of service provider.

And then the next change happens.