Eben Moglen ’80 discusses the state of freedom

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Free Culture Week kicked off last night as Eben Moglen ’80, a law professor at Columbia University and a longtime defender of the free culture movement, discussed why he believes that the “free union” is doing very well indeed and offered reasons why freedom will continue to expand in America.

A predominantly male crowd of about 20 gathered in SCI 183 to listen to Moglen’s “state of the free union” address. “The state of the free union is strong,” he began, and then outlined the reasons why four facets of the freedom movement: Free software, free hardware, free culture, and free spectrum, have been doing well. Moglen believes that there will never be another new proprietary system in the style of Windows; all future OS’s will be freely distributed like Linux is today. On the culture side, Congress is becoming increasingly disturbed by the increasing consolidation of ownership of media and cultural outlets. At some point, they may act to break up the media conglomerates which would open up the industry. Globalization has also worked to further freedom, as anti-American sentiment around the world lowers the respect and obedience for American copyright laws (which are quite restrictive compared to similar laws around the world). “Intellectual property means people dying because the drugs they need are copyrighted and are priced too highly for people to afford,” Moglen said. “People are getting angry.” He also noted that Brazil, the world’s 8th largest economy, has “copylefted” all software, meaning that all software in Brazil must be free. Summing up the state of affairs, Moglen noted that “Our union is strong because their union is weak.”

“We’ve built capital, and now we’re going to spend it,” was Moglen’s description of how the movement plans to force the creation of pro-freedom legislation. Microsoft was a target of several criticisms and witticisms throughout the talk. According to Moglen, Microsoft Office is not designed for the modern office and will soon be supplanted by free software. On the free hardware side of things, Moglen expressed the need to reassert the right of an individual to have complete control over the hardware they buy; overt spyware and more subtle invasions of computing privacy must be stopped. This is a conservative viewpoint, but it fits into the general idea of freedom.

Free culture will arise, Moglen explained, when the economics of zero marginal cost products (products for which the cost of production does not increase with the number of units produced) are fully understood. It does not cost money to share music, literature or other forms of culture, and the current system of copyrights impedes the natural distribution of such products. He noted that the RIAA suits against filesharers have not affected the amount of sharing done on P2P networks; if people want culture, they will find a way to get it.

Moglen explained that cellular phones have destroyed the traditional argument against free spectrum, which was that if all people are allowed to send signals at radio and television frequencies, interference and chaos would ensue. But cellular phones function perfectly fine even though thousands of people may be sending signals at a time. “The spectrum belongs to us,” he declared. “Broadcasting is unconstitutional.”

He closed by offering guidelines for the movement in the future, noting that history teaches that it will be best to merely try for small gains instead of trying to make one giant leap to a totally free society. He was hopeful for the eventual establishment of such a society, saying that “this time we make it (freedom) universal. This time we win.”

Free culture week continues tomorrow night with an evening of movie showings beginning at 9:30 p.m. in SCI 199.