thoughts from afar on OSCON

I’m obviously interested in what is going on at OSCON this year, since the overlap between web 2.0 and free/open software seems to be a major theme. Unfortunately, I couldn’t go, so I’m left lurking from afar.

John Eckman has some of the best notes I’ve found, at least on Eben’s talks- read his notes on Eben’s major speech and his notes on Eben’s chat/flamewar with Tim O’Reilly. It appears that in his introduction O’Reilly covered some of the same ground that I covered on Sunday, but it isn’t clear (at least from any notes I’ve been able to find) that Tim has answers to the questions he has posed.

Eben apparently said something to the effect of:

“talking about real freedoms … requires a discussion about public policy and long-term consequences of all this technology we’ve all put into the world”

I couldn’t agree more. We are standing at the brink of a huge change in how people store the data that makes up the emotional content of their lives. We must start coming to grips with the policy implications of that, just as government once struggled to come to grips with the impact of people storing the economic content of their lives in banks, and I’m excited to think that free and open services could be part of that. (We also need to think about other policy issues- patents, etc.- that can’t really be dealt with in isolation, but those aren’t my focus right now, even if they are Eben’s :)

That said, from John’s notes on Eben’s talk today:

The fundamental right with which Stallman has always begun is anyone’s right to run any program anywhere at any time for any reason – this has to include the right for people to run a program at any time *for anyone* – that is, provision of software as a service for other people. …

If the discussion about service provision is a rights conflict issue, it is critically important to frame that discussion in clear terms based on the rights perceived to be in conflict.

No rights based argument sufficient has been articulated which should compel the release of code which some people choose to run for third parties benefit. That doesn’t mean such an argument doesn’t exist…

I had already begun to try to formulate my argument in terms of rights, so I’m part way along this road already, but once you have such a broad interpretation of the rights of the user who execs the software, it becomes very difficult to convincingly articulate the rights of the user who puts data into the software, the value of the commons, and the rights of developers. I’m sure Eben is right that it will be worth the effort to try, but I’m not confident that I can succeed within that initial set of assumptions. Keep your eyes on this space, I suppose :)

8 thoughts on “thoughts from afar on OSCON”

  1. “We are standing at the brink of a huge change in how people store the data that makes up the emotional content of their lives.”

    I feel that the way how things get retained is horrible. The loss of control over these things. Often you get no pre-warning of what will be actually done with the information you submit and where it will end up.

    I made the mistake to once use my real name when posting to a mailing list of an open source project. I was not told that it will be archived by some shitholes at and until the end of days. If they were on the same region with me I would simply sue them to get those specific items removed. (Oh, it would happen quite brutally and I would have practically 0 chance of losing.) They seem to absolutely refuse of removing anything.

    (Something that is not doable by them since they are a “meaningless” non-profit organization.. Something like Google would get slaughtered instantly in the courts for exactly the same thing. And for that reason Google actually removes your posts from newsgroup archives and such [or more specifically, from the search results] if you request it correctly.)

    The services at especially US are some 10 years behind the rest in privacy issues. Anyways, since then I have just changed nicks and decided never ever to use my real name anymore. Ah well.

    I would not make such a big issue over the free services. It is a good as an idea but is problematic since with all that freeness it will stay nearly impossible to get resources required (the new factor) to actually run them. Which means that you have to tolerate some freedoms or do something creative like build p2p concepts for going around the limitations.. Which brings yet another new challenges.

    Also I think killing running software as service while benefiting from doign that would be really counter-productive. That is something that should not be done. If you really wanted to carry on your viral zealotry (recall, we’ve gone this through earlier! Hi!) you should focus on whether the mentioned case would mean that is the one who receives the service (which would be often paid) entitled to get the source. To be able to duplicate it if he is silly enough to try. And notice that he has to go commercial to raise the resources required.

    But umm.. If someone really wants to hit his head on a brick wall it’s fine by me. (I like the freeloading too much to say no.) Perhaps that should be one of the copyleft users of the user who are using that saas.

  2. I think there are a couple of key factors that when grokked will give you a clue that Stallman’s four freedoms cannot be made into rights:

    1) You do not need to compel the release of source code anyway, except perhaps as a protective measure in a copyright based copyleft licence. In other words, without copyright, natural selection does not favour a business model that can survive by selling binaries without source code. Software cannot be sold by selling copies (whether binary or not), but by selling the software, i.e. the source code. If you know that the source is worth far more than the binary, then so does the author. Just because they give you the binary for free, doesn’t mean you’re entitled to the source for free.

    2) My freedom is constrained by your privacy. Just because you’ve given me a binary, that doesn’t entitle me to send for the cops to break your door down so I can get the source. Similarly, just because you’ve let me access your computer remotely doesn’t grant me the right to your source code.

    Even copyright can’t be made into a right simply by incorporating ‘right’ into the name of the privilege – though that fools a lot of people.

    Publishers may well covet the market advantages obtained through artificial monopolies, but that doesn’t make those monopolies ethical, let alone rights.

    Collaborative software developers may well covet source code in private hands, but that doesn’t mean that a privilege to seize it, or prohibit its non-disclosure, is ethical, let alone something that can be made a right by fiat.

    I’m saying: a) you don’t actually need that privilege, and b) it’s unethical anyway (nothing you can do about it).

    All you need to do to achieve the same level of source code visibility and public liberty as the GPL, is simply to remove the constraints upon liberty of copyright and patent, i.e. abolish them.

    But do bear in mind that the tendency for proprietary software developers to keep their source code secret is because it helps them exploit copyright to sell copies. Without copyright they can only sell the software, and you can’t both keep something secret and sell it. Certainly you can sell the remote use of software, but then this is only going to be preferable to selling the source code if its users value the use less than the use+source.
    Just because you think they should have the evidently valuable source by right doesn’t make it a right. Let them pay for it. Or putting it another way, give the users the freedom to let the supplier keep the source in exchange for cheaper use.

    Copyright and patent are unethical suspensions of the public’s liberty, privacy and property rights. That’s all there is to it.

    Irrespective of copyright or patent, an individual has a right to make free use of any cultural work they find or purchase in the public domain and any work they create. Copyright and patent suspend this right, and further violate the right to privacy, to create a commercial privilege. Nature creates rights. The law protects rights, or interferes with them to create privileges.

    It may be argued that the public would benefit from a new privilege that violates one author’s privacy to satisfy the curiosity of other potential authors. But, then copyright and patent were argued on a basis of public benefit too. Benefit or not, suspending rights to create purportedly beneficial privileges may be forgivable, but it is not ethical.

  3. Wow, what an awesome misinterpretation of the GPL!

    It’s quite simple, if you are not prepared to open source your code then don’t include GPLed code in your program when it has been written by someone else without their permission as a) it’s not yours, b) you don’t own the copyright and c) it’s a breach of the licensing terms. It is no different to using the Unreal Engine 3 without paying for it, you don’t have the copyright holder’s permission.

    There are plenty of commercial libraries which you are not allowed to use without paying a fee and the GPL is no more a free ride than any commercial license and it goes the same way; you are only allowed to use the code covered by the license under the terms and conditions of that license. If you don’t like the license and do not want to abide by those terms and conditions you are free to seek alternatives but no-one is forcing anyone to release their code, no-one’s code is being ‘infected’, you can choose not to use GPL licensed code in your work. If you can’t find anything suitable under alternative licenses you can always do what programmers have done for decades and write your own code which you can fully own and license it as you please.

    In short: if code has been released under the GPL, the copyright holder has laid out specifically what you can and cannot do with their code which they, not you. own. If you break the rules, you are using something you do not own without permission. It is no less theft than if you used the Unreal Engine 3 without paying for it.

  4. Paul, I’m not entirely sure you’re responding to my post…

    Please let me know where I’ve misinterpreted the GPL.

    I’m arguing that the GPL and ‘copyright/patent abolition’ do not actually differ in terms of end result. In both cases we end up with software that when purchased applies no effective constraint to the purchaser in terms of what they can do with it (and importantly, in both cases, the purchaser is unable to re-apply any constraint to the copies or derivatives they publish).

    Therefore, given copyright/patent abolition there would be no need to create an unethical privilege to enable software authors to police the private domain (seize unpublished source, or prohibit publication of software without source). I know this is difficult to accept. On the face of it, if there’s no law forcing people to publish source code, well they’ll just sell binaries won’t they? Well, no they won’t because no one would buy them (because anyone can produce a binary for nothing). The only thing worth paying for is what you can’t get for nothing, i.e. the source code. The source code is the work, it is the labour that’s worth exchanging money for. The binary is a mere demo that the source has been written.

    If you want to be ethical about it, your freedom ends where someone else’s privacy begins. If they give you a free demo, you’ve no right to demand the source. Copyright has the power to of course, but then it is not a right, but a commercial privilege intended for publishers.

    If you couldn’t give a fig about ethics, and just want a copyright licence that prevents private exploitation, well, you need the unethical privilege of copyright, because it not only governs what people may do with the software they purchase, but also what they can do with it in the privacy of their own home (copying and preparation of derivatives).

    If I were you I’d treat copyright like Sauron’s ring. It’s easy to use its power to do what you think is good, and easy to lose sight of the fact that it is inherently corrupt and its power should only be nullified, never harnessed. Copyright suspends your liberty and violates your privacy. Do not use it to obtain more liberty than it suspends, and violate no-one’s privacy except those who attempt to violate yours.

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