Happy 200th Birthday, Mr. Lincoln


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Feb 12, 2009 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

Dear President Obama,

Today is the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln. From all the press that I have read, you are a fan of Abraham Lincoln just as I am.

Recently there has been a lot of historical research into President Lincoln's life, trying to find out who he really was as a man, as opposed to the "myth" that has been created.

Part of this research tells us that President Lincoln may not have thought of the Black people as equals, and that the Emancipation Proclamation was more an economic and political action to end the war than it was about racial equality.

Historians are now saying that one of Lincoln's major issues around slavery was that free men could not compete economically against slave labor, and that this point was the real reason that Lincoln felt slavery was bad. Lincoln, they say, felt that in order for our country to go forward slavery had to be abolished so that people could work for a livable wage, competing on an equal basis.

Imagine, a war fought for economic reasons! Aren't all wars fought for economic reasons?

Whatever Lincoln's innermost thoughts, the act of freeing the slaves, while unpopular at the time, started our country on a path of economic freedom, and moving toward social equality.

Now we are engaged in another great war. It is also a war of the economy, but this time from the other direction. It is a war of large companies making bad decisions, some of which have been fostered by poor government policies. It is an economy where the jobs which produced goods (and sometimes even services) have been sent overseas, separating the jobs from the people that bought the goods and services.

It is an economy which today uses a lot of closed source software generated by companies which were started in an economic climate that no longer exists, but yet which is still being fostered on America (and the world) by people who would keep people as software slaves rather than let them have true freedom to use and change the software they have purchased the way they want to use it.

President Obama, you have been placed in a position much like Lincoln's, with people thinking that you do not have the qualifications to do the job. Like Lincoln you have reached out to former adversaries to find the best people. Like Lincoln, you will have many people against you because they value the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. Like Lincoln, you have many people who feel that they are under the slave owner's hand, with little hope for salvation from the man in the White House.

I have faith that you can make some of the same tough decisions that President Lincoln made. There will be screams and shouting and gnashing of teeth, but in the end the United States, and the world, will have a stronger economy.

I believe that the economy will be strengthened by allowing the creation of hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of small businesses. Small businesses drive almost half of the economy today, and it seems to be the large businesses that threaten the economy. We have seen that if certain very large businesses fail, the "domino effect" threatens whole segments of the economy. With small business, however, the closing of even relatively large numbers of businesses does not have the same impact, as it is spread across the economy instead of in a vertical market (such as automobiles). Yes, we need some large businesses, but the larger the business, the more it should be watched due to our dependence on it.

Small business is the epitome of capitalism. The people who create the business and the revenue more directly benefit from it. There is a more direct relationship between working hard and making more money.

To stimulate small business in the Information Age, however, I believe that we will have to embrace the concept of Software Freedom. This will take several steps, but you have at least four years to accomplish these steps, and (with the help of heaven) maybe eight years.

Software Freedom will lower barriers to start-up for lots of small businesses. Software Freedom will allow them to change the software they use to get a advantage on their competitor. Software Freedom will allow them to increase the value of their software solutions.

First of all, the Government should, whenever possible, use Free Software. This will spread the development of software from concentrated areas to throughout the 50 states. Now when I say "Free Software" I do not mean "gratis software", but software that follows the Free Software Foundation's four freedoms (copied directly from their web site www.fsf.org):

  1. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  4. The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

These freedoms do not say that the programmer should not make money writing the program. You can make money writing and selling Free Software.

Making it easier for local programmers to modify existing software to meet the local needs of local business and government will help develop locally the higher tech jobs of programming rather than jobs of "just installing" closed source, packaged software. Having these more highly trained software people closer to the end users of the software will also create better local support capabilities, which will help reduce the estimated one billion dollars a day that our nation loses because we do not know how to use the software we have or because we have software that does not work the way we need it to work.

Note that I say "whenever possible". I realize that Government and industry can not turn on a dime, but new projects and new aspects of business should at least consider Free Software for their needs. To not consider using Free Software is not being fiscally responsible. You talked about rebuilding our infrastructure. This has to be more than just rebuilding bridges and highways, which represents the infrastructure of the 20th century. It has to be about rebuilding the infrastructure of the twenty-first century, the Information Highway. To do this properly we need Free Software.

Secondly, all Government grants (especially research grants) should be required to deliver their software as Free and Open Source. Why should the American people (or any people) have to pay for the software that they have already paid for through taxes? In addition, closed source software often hides pieces of code useful to other industry. Having the results of this research open and freely available would help our industry re-tool at lower over-all costs.

Third, we desperately need patent reform, particularly in the software area. Software is like painting or singing or some other form of art. It is too hard for the software engineer to try to dodge the huge numbers of software patents that have been granted since the mid 1980s when software software patents were first applied. I point out the lateness of patents in the software industry because so many software innovations happened before patents were applied to software. I believe you do not need software patents to have innovations in software. Those who tell you that software patents are necessary are lying.

Business speaks out of both sides (and sometimes three sides) of their mouths when they say that they take software patents out only as "defensive measures" against other software patent pools. If we take them at their word, then we can save them millions, if not billions of dollars by simply eliminating software patents. From a national perspective, in the end it is only the "largest patent pool" (with the most lawyers) that wins, and that pool will belong (in a few years) to China. In the meantime companies spend billions in legal fees to register and defend (both for and against) patent claims. These fees are paid by consumers, but the generate no value.

Now is the time to restructure our Intellectual Property law to allow people to make a reasonable amount of money on a reasonable amount of effort. Copyright and licensing should be all that is needed, not software patents.

I have no real issue with patents in general. I feel that patents in certain areas for real innovation or needed research (such as new medicines and new ways of making steel) are worth protecting. On the other hand, maybe a more "open" method of solving these problems, with some type of reward system could take the place of a lot of patents.

After forty years in the computer industry I have seen *NO* software investment justifying the United States supporting the software patent industry. I recommend that:

  • new software patent applications be rejected
  • there be an agressive reduction of time that existing software patents be protected, moving existing software patents more quickly toward public domain

The patent system was created to benefit the whole people of the United States, not the individuals who have learned to take advantage of the system itself.

And while we are at it, can we please get rid of the Digital Rights Management (DRM) laws and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act? By any standards these laws are draconian. Let us punish people that violate copyright laws, not punish the people that actually buy the music and want to play it on the player of their choice. It is one thing if vendors want to make it harder for their customers, but the government should not be helping them. Even Apple is walking away from DRM.

While we are at it, the longevity of copyright has gotten way out of hand. The next time you sing "Happy Birthday", you should hope it is not in front of something that can be construed as an audience. Otherwise you may be fined for singing at a public performance.

Seventeen years should be long enough for even Walt Disney to recover their investment on a movie. After that, the work should go into the public domain. By limiting the time the artist will have copyright protection and to have income based on that protected art might inspire the artist to generate new music, or the artist will have to entertain us with a new performance, which is eligible for a new copyright.

Finally, we should be teaching our students in public elementary schools, middle schools, high schools and colleges with Free Software. Free Software teaches students twice...once in how to use the software as a tool, and once how the software really works to solve the problem. Our public schools should not be a training ground on how to use a specific product, no matter what the product is. Our schools should not be creating addiction to products (often given to them for "gratis") just so the students will buy then later when they grow up. Our schools should be exposing our students to as many options and answers as possible, and to be as flexible as possible. To learn to evaluate and make decisions.

I am not asking you to take this advice based only on this letter, just as Lincoln did not act immediately on advice given to him by just one person. However, Lincoln kept moving in the right direction, often using radical (for his time) methods to free his country, and in doing that free a people.

You have that same vision as Lincoln, Mr. President. Help free our people from Software Slavery. Let our people go.

Warmest regards,

Jon "maddog" Hall

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