Code Is Law, So We Must Have Open Access

Update: This has now graduated to the OSI Blog.

As Lessig observed in his 1999 book “CODE, and other laws of cyberspace”, a citizen's practical experience of the law and of society today is through the software that implements the written law. All the computer code that governs our lives and liberty should be open to public scrutiny in this new era. More than just allowing us to guard our freedoms now, future historians will also need usable source code if they are to fully understand our digital present as their historic past.

A classical white bust stands on a pedestal in front of a wall (in Paris). The top portion of the bust is replaced by the top of the document ison from a computer, with the word "LOADING" written on it

By popularising and catalysing the pre-existing concepts from the free software movement, open source has been at the heart of the connected technology revolution for 25 years. Open source licenses grant all the rights necessary for anyone and everyone to use, improve, share and monetise the software powering modern systems and networks, empowering collaboration with many “known others” to create results greater than any could alone. OSI-approved open source licenses are the hidden power behind Linux, Apache, Mozilla, Android and more.

But by granting all the rights necessary to evolve the software powering modern systems and networks, open source also unreservedly grants permission to “unknown others” to repurpose, rehost, reuse and revolutionise. It also allows digital archivists to store, refactor and renew the means of access over the long term.

Availability to the “unknown others” — to society in general, and to our descendants — is crucial to our future. When software stays locked up inside the corporation or institution, when code created by the state with public funds remains secret, it does not add to our collective knowledge and the innovation it embodies is lost to society and when the “owner” moves on. This was the original motivation for previous generations to create temporary intellectual monopolies as an incentive to creators to make their creations public.

As time has passed, those intellectual monopolies have themselves been regarded as property and the knowledge and culture they embody is increasingly withheld from society using that as a pretext. Open source allows that new-found wealth to be “spent” in a new way to stimulate collaboration. Collaboration in community has gone on to amplify innovation and accelerate adoption. It’s thus especially important that software funded with public money finds its way into Software Heritage.

Software Heritage completes the new social contract enabled by open source. It provides the ultimate historical reference for the code behind our culture and comprehensive library of innovation to provide a “mounting block” to the shoulders of the giants before us. We should strive to get all the software that matters into this new Internet Archive for code.

Software is a cultural artifact, a proxy for the law in the lives of every citizen, a tool for control and for freedom depending on the hand that wields it. It is imperative that all software is open for scrutiny and preserved for posterity.

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