It's a question that may come to define the early part of the millennium.
To recap, it is the issue being debated regarding people's right to copy music, software, etc.
On some issues the answer seems simple. However, ask people under 25 what they think of digital rights management technology (DRM) and they might just hiss and spit.
Frankly, I think most of the people insisting that intellectual capital should be free would probably change their tune if they had a major recording contract. And had slaved for 10 years in a garage with some mates, surviving on handouts from family and singing covers in a rowdy pub each night.
Things become a bit more complicated in the world of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). This includes the GNU Linux operating system. And thousands and thousands of other pieces of software running in places as diverse as on PCs in people's homes to mainframes in the datacentres of multinational banks.
It is a truly amazing world where people work half their nights on software they don't see a cent for. Few would predict that such a model could be sustainable - and some believe it isn't. But that's a different post.
A long running legal saga has been the SCO versus Linux suit. SCO alleges that Linux has copied substantial portions of the original UNIX software.
Now the fight has got really big - Microsoft has threatened to sue developers, distributors and users of Linux for 235 patent infringements. The threat culminated in a deal between Microsoft and Novell (distributor of the SUSE flavour) where Microsoft agreed not to sue Novell or users of SUSE in return for a collaborative distribution agreement.
More on the developments with regard to the 235 patents in this Fortune article.
It seems that things are getting nasty now that Microsoft perceives a larger threat from FOSS.
But it does bring up the topic of what can be copyrighted / patented in software. Microsoft refuses to disclose the patents it feels that it feels have been infringed. Do they include the File menu in the upper left corner of the window? Or are they excerpts of source code lifted from Microsoft programmes.
I'm sceptical. The American style of pre-emptive patenting of an idea by people who have no means of implementing it irritates the crap out of me.
Copying code or precise user interfaces is one thing. It should be illegal. But if this is a frivolous attempt launched by Microsoft on competitive grounds, it should be fought hard.
Perhaps FOSS foundations might encourage Apple to sue Microsoft for copying its idea of a GUI operating system....
More on this in the Financial Mail blog.
Torvalds and Moglen agree: MS patent claims are 'FUD'