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Black Markets

Aug 15 22:34:38 GMT 2003

Open source confronts IP issues expresses the opinion that Linux will be challenged by software patents held by small firms. The problem with that is much different than the supposedly copied code of the SCO lawsuit, because you can't always just rewrite code that violates a patent. Quotes like ""I can guarantee that if Linux contains code that's offensive to SCO, the open source community could replace it within weeks" aren't necessarily true when the code is covered by a patent.

If this really is a threat to Linux and Open Source in general, I have to wonder if the whole thing will go underground. My grandparents probably flouted Prohibition as so many others did, and while Linux might not be quite so popular as beer and wine, it might already be too popular to suppress. If Linux became illegal, would there be pirate web sites serving patches? Would there be servers hidden away in closets, masquerading as legal OSes?

The thought of this raises larger issues of intellectual property, commons, and the ridiculous extent of patents and copyrights today. All of that is very well discussed in Lawrence Lessig's The Future of Ideas, which is important reading no matter what happens here.

But there's a larger issue of the dangers of laws that a good part of the general populace will ignore. We have too much of that already. One of the major reasons we haven't made cigarettes sales illegal is the very real fear of the enormous black market that would immediately arise. We can't afford that much open criminality.

It may be too early to worry about Linux yet, but you can bet that companies like Microsoft will be looking hard at trying to lock it up with patents. If they succeed, I suspect that there will be black market Linux. Look at how many illegal copies of Windows and Microsoft Office are installed at small to medium businesses. Management often turns a blind eye to that; using suddenly illegal Linux would have to be a much easier rationalization.

Not pleasant thoughts, I know.

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