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[FYI] Tinkerers' champion


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Tinkerers' champion  

Jun 20th 2002  

>From The Economist print edition  

It is not just libertarians who are concerned about the restrictions 
caused by America's latest copyright law. Edward Felten, a professor 
at Princeton University, argues that the “freedom to tinker”—the 
right to understand, repair and modify one's own equipment— is 
crucial to innovation, and as valuable to society as the freedom of 


Another issue is licensing. Consumers assume that they own products 
once they have paid for them. But increasingly, they are only 
licensing them. This is the case with most shrink-wrapped software 
bought in stores and with software downloaded from developers' 
websites. Either you accept to license, not own, the product when you 
click the “I accept” button at the end of those screenfuls of 
legalese or you cannot use it. But the same is true for an increasing 
number of devices, such as Internet appliances. Suppliers of such 
gadgets could use licences to prohibit any tinkering. Should 
consumers, Dr Felten asks, be encouraged to bargain away their 
freedom to tinker?  

Dr Felten is the first to admit that his arguments are not yet 
focused enough. He intends to write a book about the topic when he is 
back at Princeton. The treatise on tinkering is certain to find avid 
readers—especially among the millions who spend countless hours 
playing with their computers, cars and cameras.  

It would be a surprise if they did not put up a fight. Many are 
preparing to do so already. Protests are being voiced with increasing 
vigour against a bill recently introduced in Congress by Senator 
Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, on behalf of Disney and other media 
giants, requiring a piracy-detection system to be built into all 
digital entertainment devices. If the legislation passes, critics 
warn that personal computers would become nothing more than a costly 
but entirely dumb machine for playing DVDs.  

The bill could also criminalise open-source software, such as the 
increasingly popular operating system, Linux. Copy-protection systems 
usually come with proprietary software that is hidden or cannot be 
altered—something that no self-respecting open-source hacker would 
integrate into a program. No wonder all those who care about 
innovation—the freedom to tinker and create new ways of doing 
things—are up in arms.  

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