Archive for the ‘free culture’ Category

the Swedish Pirate Party

June 17th, 2008

Rick Falkvinge of the Swedish Pirate Party gives a talk at google. It's one of the best talks about free culture and "intellectual property" I've seen. I also learned that the Norwegian Liberal Party (Venstre) has adopted the same stance on free culture, bravo!

If you have reservations about the implications of copyright reform, go watch this talk, he gets all these questions from the audience.

The soundbite from Falkvinge's talk for all you 24hour news media addicts:

Copyright, while written into law that it's supposed to be for the benefit of the author, never was. It was for the benefit of the distributors.

OLPC about to self destruct?

May 4th, 2008

I consider OLPC to be one of the most exciting initiatives of the last few years. When the idea was first circulated it was such an exciting call to arms to do something about the lack of education in poor regions of the world. And the project has produced what appears to be a pretty incredible product, the research of which is now recycled back into the general hardware industry, so it has brought advances that wouldn't otherwise have happened (now).

I recall pondering the real purpose of the project, asking what is going to be achieved with these laptops. The OLPC project had a very good answer to this. They said the laptops will promote learning in areas where school books are a luxury. Furthermore, the laptop itself is completely tweakable, you press a special key and the source code of the current program pops up. This will promote learning through tweaking and experimentation, so that eventually an industry can be built on these foundations, in regions where little industry exists today and where perhaps the potential for one (in terms of natural resources) is bleak. A beautiful dream, one that could change the world in big ways.

Now Negroponte has changed his tune. Visionary that he is, he failed to convince the clients of the value of free software. So now he's humming "forget open source, it's all about the kids!" while preparing to run Windows on the laptop. There is a new smoke screen being constructed:

Negroponte says that the organization is working to ensure that Sugar can run smoothly on Windows.

Riiiight, running Sugar on Windows. Tell me, what exactly is the value of running Windows with an all free software stack? It's completely useless, that's what. The whole value of Windows is as a platform, not merely as an operating system. People buy Windows to run Windows applications, not for Windows itself. Or are we actually buying that Egyptian officials are eager to purchase Windows licenses in order to run the free software suite?

Congratulations, Negroponte, you've just become a licensed Windows vendor. The kids will no doubt have fun clicking on the Start menu and playing Solitaire. There is a great deal to learn from that, just nothing about the operating system or the applications, you know, actual learning.

OLPC in its original form was about empowering the users, with Windows that capability is entirely destroyed. The fact you cannot mix learning with trade secrets should be blindly obvious to anyone. Open souce is important, but it's especially important when you want people to learn something.

Furthermore, learning doesn't happen in isolation. It's accelerated when it happens in a community of ideas and impulses that flow freely. Resigning OLPC president gets it when he says:

"What comes part and parcel with open source is a culture, and it's the culture that I'm interested in," he says. "It's a culture of expression and critique, sharing, collaboration, appropriation." And this culture can and should spill into classrooms, he says.

GPL vs BSD, a matter of sustainability

December 15th, 2007

If you haven't been living under a rock the past decade (I suppose Stonehenge qualifies) you may have walked in on some incarnation of the famous GPL vs BSD flamewar. It's up there with the most famous flamewars (now *there's* a research question for a brimming sociology student!) of our beloved Internet society.

Both licensing models have been around for a very long time. I don't know which predates which, but it really doesn't matter. The spirit behind both licenses is very similar: free software is good. But they realize this idea in different ways.

In the GPL license you have the four freedoms: to run the software, to have the source code, to distribute the software, to distribute your modifications to the software. What this implies is that when you obtain the software, you have the *obligation* to ensure that these four things hold true for the next person you give it to. After all, someone had to go to the trouble of preserving these rights for *you*, so you have to do the same for the next guy.

The BSD license is different, because it gives *you* the right to distribute the software, but it does not oblige you to make sure that the next guy has any such right. Well, that's not really a problem, the next guy can ignore you and get the software from the same source that you did (if that source is still available). But if you change it and you give it to him, you can forbid him from passing it on.

So who is right? Well, the BSD camp is. The BSD is no doubt a freer license, it gives you the right to decide what rights to bundle with the software. That is much closer to the absolute meaning of "freedom" than the GPL. Alas, it's not "completely" free, because you can't remove the name of the software's author and replace it with "Leonardo da Vinci".

What the GPL terms "freedom" is actually fairly subversive, because it *forces* you to do certain things. Most people who are forced to do something call that a "restriction" rather than a "freedom". It's true that you have certain freedoms when you get the software, but if you want to pass it on you have restrictions, so they could just as well call it the four freedoms and the four restrictions.

Therefore, if we take the philosophical ideal of freedom to heart, even though both of these licenses promote free software, none of them represent freedom, and the GPL is far less free than the BSD.

Harmless restrictions

Suppose you're a parent and you give your kid a candy bar and say this is for you and your brother, you can have half of it, and when he comes home give him the other half. Do you think that is going to happen just as you instructed? How confident are you?

Well, your intentions were good. You tried to ensure fairness. But we humans are scheming devils, aren't we? So our philosophy is a bit of an idealization, we just don't live up to it.

Is there some way we can find a measure of freedom that is good enough? The fact is that we live with a lot of implicit restrictions without worrying too much about them. If you tell your kid you're free to wear anything you want, eat anything you want, be anywhere you want, and do anything you want, except you can't burn the house down most kids would find that a very satisfying degree of freedom, despite the restriction. They would probably say well I wasn't going to do that anyway, all my toys would go up in smoke.

So what can we do about sustainability?

Freedom in its pure form is a wonderful thing, but it's not inherently sustainable. You can take something and compare it up against freedom and tell if it's free, but you can't use freedom to enforce freedom. That would be absurd.

The GPL model is sustainable. It offers freedom, but with the pragmatic twist that there needs to be some kind of force to keep the freedom in place. In that sense it could even be said to be more free, because the *accumulated* freedom over all people involved is higher than when one person has all the freedom and everyone else has none.

GPL freedom is isomorphic. If OpenOffice needs a way to open jpeg files, and the gimp already has code for this, OpenOffice can just take it. Then two years later if OpenOffice reads jpegs much faster, the gimp can take the modified code from OpenOffice and use it. Both parties have the same degree of freedom, and no freedom is lost along the way, the process is "lossless".

BSD freedom, on the other hand, is "lossy". If I get BSD code I have a lot of freedom, but the next guy doesn't. It's fairly well known that there is BSD code in Windows. And obviously, whatever Microsoft did with that code, they have no obligation to release their changes. So the code *was* free at one point, but it didn't *remain* free. Furthermore, even if they didn't change it one bit, if the original author is no longer around, Microsoft is still sitting on BSD code that is free for *them*, but it's no longer free for anyone else.

So what can we conclude from all this? Both license models make software free, but only GPL software is sustainably free. The BSD gives greater freedom, the GPL gives more freedom. Choose which one you value more.

For a more in-depth discussion see this essay, not only for itself, but also the many many references it contains to other relevant texts.

UPDATE: Alexandre Baron has written a French translation.

MPAA stealing intellectual property

February 18th, 2007

As if the MPAA's (Motion Picture Association of America) credibility wasn't eroding quickly enough, in a recent stunt reported on reddit, they were busted cold for taking free blogging software, deliberately removing all references to its origin, thereby violating its user license.

welcome to DRM

November 29th, 2006

It's all over. Russia apparently caved into US pressure over trade deals and agreed to shut down allofmp3.com. That means the last site that sells non-DRM mainstream music is now gone. So if you want that latest Moby cd (and who doesn't ), you have two options.. a) buy the cd or b) buy it from a DRM store.

If you buy the overpriced cd, paying for 18 tracks while you'd only pay for 2 if you could cause the rest stink, you can rip the cd and put the mp3s on your mp3 player. Media companies have tried various things to cripple cds so you can't rip them, but none of the methods have gained a foothold cause they've all sucked so far.

If you buy the album (or selected tracks) online, you might get it cheaper, but the media is crippled. If you buy through iTunes and you want to put the music on your iRiver, Apple's message is fuck you for not buying our iPod. You could burn the music to a cd and then rip it, but again iTunes decides if you can (which can change at any time), how many tracks you can burn per month etc etc. Not to mention that it's a complete hassle.

To put a new spin on things, Microsoft released their Zune mp3 player and it has some exciting new features. First of all, it's not compatible with Windows Media Player, so all the music you have there you can throw away, you're not gonna use it on the Zune. Secondly, obviously it's not compatible with anything like iTunes, so if you use iTunes and you have a collection of music bought through iTunes, and you want this music on your Zune, you can re-buy it. Isn't it convenient?

Before file sharing took off, the only way to get music was to buy cds. Almost ten years later, with the giant stir that file sharing has caused, the only real way to buy music is to buy cds. Apparently the technological revolution is blazing fast, but the ability of the music industry to leverage the internet to its advantage (that is, without completely alienating its customers) is zero.

Lots of people don't realize why DRM is bad. Yet. But once Zunes become popular and the inability to combine iTunes with Zune becomes a real practical problem, we should hear a bit more noise about it.