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Giving away value disrupts the state

Gervase Markham, who blogs at Hacking for Christ, works for the Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit “dedicated to promoting choice and innovation on the internet”. He writes about his recent encounter with a UK Trading Standards officer:

They had encountered businesses which were selling copies of Firefox, and wanted to confirm that this was in violation of our licence agreements before taking action against them.

I wrote back, politely explaining the principles of copyleft – that the software was free, both as in speech and as in price, and that people copying and redistributing it was a feature, not a bug. I said that selling verbatim copies of Firefox on physical media was absolutely fine with us, and we would like her to return any confiscated CDs and allow us to continue with our plan for world domination (or words to that effect).

Many people would find the official’s reaction to that surprising; but they do not call them disruptive technologies for nothing. The woman replied:

“If Mozilla permit the sale of copied versions of its software, it makes it virtually impossible for us, from a practical point of view, to enforce UK anti-piracy legislation, as it is difficult for us to give general advice to businesses over what is/is not permitted.”

As Carlo at Techdirt writes:

It’s unclear exactly what role the Mozilla Foundation plays in enforcing the UK’s anti-piracy laws, or exactly why they shouldn’t be allowed to license their software however they want, just to make things easier for some civil servants. If nothing else, it merely indicates how deeply ingrained people’s preconceived notions about software “piracy” are. And it’s disappointing that a government officer whose job it is to enforce copyrights can’t seem to get their head around the idea that there is another way to license software than how most entrenched developers and companies handle it.

Disappointing? Yes. Surprising? Not really.

Crossposted from the Engagement Alliance

9 comments to Giving away value disrupts the state

  • Yes, entirely unsurprising I agree.

    Had a similar experience about 4-5 years back on a joint NHS/Local Authority pulbic information project which was commissioning its own CMS-based website.

    While we were paying the developers for their coding work, we specified that we stick to open source software as much as possible – PHP, MYSQL and Linux for the webserver.

    Unfortunately, as a joint-funded project we had to deal with both NHS and Local Authority solicitors in the matter of who actually owned the system we were having developed, which led to one extremely surreal phone call from an NHS solicitor asking why we weren’t going to own the copyright on MySQL…


  • They probably suspected the “free availability” was a ploy to get around paying sales tax (VAT?) and the later sale for money proved the value of the item. Bureaucrats’ minds are like sluggish rivers, running in predictable channels, almost impossible to change and full of mud.

  • Julian Taylor

    I know of at least one fairly large-scale computer retailer in SW10 that makes a charge of £100 for providing Firefox, Thunderbird and OpenOffice 2.0 on CD. Then again I suppose they could conceivably get round that by claiming that they are charging for the actual CD than for the software on it.

    Incidentally I just finished a meeting with a company regarding the filiming of a TV advert for their web-based job search company. It was suggested that they explore the possibility of using a weblog to expand their web reach, against which the in-house webdesigner launched a somewhat excessive tirade along the lines of. “nobody except dysfunctional geeks and pro-Bush gun nuts reads those sort of things” and then asked how many of us actually had a blog.

    Everyone (about 9 of us) except him raised a hand …

  • Fred

    Julian, that was hysterical.

    In the long silence that followed that question, were any oins dropped.

  • Oh that really is funny Jules! There is nothing sadder than a web designer who suddenly realises he is waaaay behind the leading edge wave that he thought he was surfing.

  • The point of blogging is, surely, the content.

    The point about web design is, surely, the presentation.

    As in politics, a new style of presentation has its moment, but it palls after a while.

    Best regards

  • As in politics, a new style of presentation has its moment, but it palls after a while

    These things evolve, so that is rather the point.

  • Richard Thomas

    When I was quite young, I came up with some whacky idea that would have made the job of the police much easier. The details have gone into the mists of time but no doubt it was embedded RFID or some such. My father was no libertarian but what he said to me when I explained it to him struck me deeply and I am sure is in large part responsible for my libertarian leanings now.

    “We were not put on this earth to make life easier for the police”

    It is important that government realise that its primary function is (should be) to facilitate the free interactions of us as individuals and that it is not its own raison d’etre


  • Kim du Toit

    Heheheheh… “You have to copyright your product so we can enforce it.”