TCS Daily

California Scheming

By Joel Bucher - August 26, 2002 12:00 AM

The American way is progress through competition. The California way, however, seems to be something else entirely.

Gov. Gray Davis recently proposed unilateral statewide cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, despite the uncertain fate of the Kyoto Protocol, a shaky economy, and absolutely no chance of affecting global temperatures. Eventually, California politicians will wise up and realize they are committing economic suicide by cutting emissions before the rest of the world lifts a finger.

Another real threat to the California economy comes from the legislature's proposed ban on procurement of copyrighted commercial software. The legislation, called the Digital Software Security Act comes from the same state that Silicon Valley calls home. That's right. California government wouldn't buy its software from many of its home grown companies. Instead, it would rather thumb its nose at the regional software industry that anchors its economy and join the ranks of a fledgling, but growing movement to rid the world of software copyrights.

The legislature has been encouraged by the efforts of a small group of software developers that includes Richard Stallman's Free Software Foundation. Stallman and others don't believe programmers have a right to own the code they write. Their premise: Software is a public utility and, thus, should be available to anyone who would like to use or change the software as they see fit.

As such, software copyrights to open source advocates are a violation of free speech. The advocates utilitarian goal, however, is to allow successive generations of programmers to elaborate and improve upon a program over time, which would allegedly provide a social good in the form of better code. In other words, anyone could add a few lines of code to an existing program and then sell it for profit. Never mind that someone else spent years thinking up 10,000 lines of code to create an original program. All you need to become a legitimate software developer now is to add your two cents to some plagiarized code and suddenly you have a product to sell -- or give away.

One major problem with open source software is it eventually becomes free in the economic sense, because any programmer who gets his hands on a program could decide to distribute his version of the program -- free of charge. This would obviously hinder or even eliminate the original developer's ability to turn a profit.

Imagine open source software licensing applied to novels and journalism. Writers would no longer have the right to own the unique succession of words and symbols they created. Someone could take this op-ed, for instance, rewrite a few sentences, put his name on it, change the title and resell it to another publisher.

It is, of course, perfectly legitimate for a developer to choose to design a software license as he sees fit. That's the beauty of American contract law. If a programmer wants to give the world access to his code, then so be it. But if government begins to favor free licensing, there's no way to know if large developers could still make a profit. If other states follow, California could very well unleash a genie that unravels the software industry -- and privacy -- as we know it.

Advocates of the legislation claim it will enhance security, but how could giving more people access to code possibly make it more secure? Very few people should have access to sensitive public data, and fewer people still should have access to the database code. If the legislation passes, it's likely that at least parts of the code of California's database systems will be widely available to the public, making it far too easy for terrorists to hack into the government's system.

There's also the issue of competition. Government administrators need choices when it comes to buying software, just like any private company. And there's no guarantee that open source software will always be the best solution to a particular administrative need. With choices and competition also come lower prices, and California taxpayers deserve to get the most for their dollar.

All this aside, there is a glimmer of hope for Californians who value freedom. The Valley, a suburban area of Los Angeles County, is now enveloped in a secession movement to split with the city government. Valley revolutionaries cite lackluster services and unresponsiveness on the part of the city's elected officials. Maybe Silicon Valley should take its cue and do the same.

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