Is property theft?

It’s a shame to write about something with the sole intent of being critical, so let us first say that Benjamin Black’s commentary about the GPL in the context of cloud computing is of its time.  That is, as the web starts to fulfill its promise of delivering more and more computing, the importance of Free software might appear diminished.  Tim O’Reilly, for one, has been forecasting this for several years already, and the AGPL was written with this in mind.  (Incidentally, fans of plain speaking might note that Greg Papadopulos has pioneered a new term for cloud computing: “the network”.)

Rather than make things even more complicated than they are, let’s be clear.  Free software is about your rights in relation to a device that you own (iPhone owners: Apple controls your property).  When we consider the increasing intimacy of technology in our everyday lives, work and social  interactions, the importance of this becomes more and more apparent.  You may want a vendor to control what your device does, but you should at least have the right to opt out.  And this also explains why many people feel that the publc sector should have a proclivity mandate to use Free software.  It starts to seem unreasonable that a government body, paid for by and representing the public, should allow its infrastructure to be controlled by a commercial interest.

But cloud computing is the use of someone else’s infrastructure.  And so, Mr Black is entirely correct in saying that rules around, for example, data portability, are very important and not yet well-defined.

Now, none of this invalidates the importance of a strong copyleft like the GPL, and it certainly does not mean it acts unfairly.  Mr Black talks about “those who control a software project” deciding who “gets paid”.  In this model, the dual-licensing model (licensing software either as open source or with a commercial license), is the only way to “get paid”.

Leaving that dubious assumption aside, where does control come from? Control of a project is a function of its ownership of the copyright and the trademark of the software.  Control over copyright is gained by creating the work, paying for its creation, or by paying for the rights or by receiving those rights as a contribution.   By no means all GPL projects conform to this consolidated ownership, and those that do may be under the control of a commercial body or they may be held in trust elsewhere.  I believe that the Free Software Foundation Europe offered this service a while ago.  (And as an aside, I am delighted to read that some people welcome Sun’s policy of dual-copyright ownership.  This was a labour of love for me and others to get the several hundred open source project at Sun to use the same contributor agreement).

So, when Mr Black is complaining that the GPL is “like DRM”, he is referring to projects which, in order for you to contribute back to the code base that will bear the trademark by which the project is widely known, require that you assign some measure of copyright ownership back to the original owner (or proxy owner) of that code base.   It really, really, really is not like DRM.

Enough of this navel-gazing.  Let’s simplify these problems:

The rights of the user in relation to their own property are reflected in Free software.

The rights of the developer in relation to a project they participate in are reflected in open source. (Some people consider that the use of trademarks are an important, under-investigated are of this – I am one of them).

The rights of the user in relation to using someone else’s infrastructure are not yet governed by any widely understood framework.  The Open Cloud Manifesto is the first attempt (I am aware of) to address this.  It will take time.  That neither the Free software movement nor the open source movement address this is no criticism of either.

More to the point: exercising ownership rights which do not curtail anyone else’s freedom in relation to that work (c.f. DRM), but may impair their ability to make money on a piece of work you own is not, really, really not, wrong.

Chris Messina on Opera Unite

  • Chris Messina’s take on Opera Unite is a good read. “Now, it might sound ironic coming from me that I think Opera was wrong to paint their pitch with the paint of libertarian ethos, but if they’re going to succeed, they have to go beyond “owning your own data” to talking about why owning your own data is better or easier.” I thikn this nails it. Opera Unite is the anti-cloud computing. And the people who are almost certainly the most interested in that are the free software activitists who also want to live online. But then, they are not going to be using Opera in the first place.
  • “The licensing wars should be a thing of the past. The question is how to drive participation while building businesses that improve as participation increases.” Curious argument this. For one thing, I suspect that fixing licensing issues around patents and especially trademarks may help to energise open source businesses. For another, it is silly to knock Richard Stallman down as a leading figure in the “open source” movement, as he roundly rejects the label, and has been saying for years that he is not interesting in creating wealth, but preserving freedom.
    (tags: opensource)
  • The Add-Ons team released Collections, and with many things around Firefox, it can often be a surprise just how rapid the uptake is. Although maybe it is not that surprising that a blog like Duct Tape Marketing would apprecite the (what they might call) “sticky” aspect of having people subscribe to one’s colection.
    (tags: firefox addons)
  • Interesting, most especially for former employees at Sun. (And it is Jabbar, not Jabber). The comment about greed killing the company was interesting – I recall that the runaway success of the E10k product created a huge expansion at Sun, created an organistion that felt it had a proprietary cash-cow to protect (i.e. close) and instituted a massive amount of complexity in the company that was geared to selling expensive and complex products, not the simple, horizontally scaling white boxes that the market (lead by Google), realised it wanted. Well, that’s my take.
    (tags: sun)
  • “if Mozilla and Opera Software want Microsoft to offer the user a choice of browser when they start Windows for the first time, when will we be given the opportunity to choose our search provider when we first start Firefox and Opera? After all, both currently default to Google because the two companies have deals in place with the search giant, who pays for search queries generated by the search box in both browsers.”

    Not sure I agree with all the logic. But anyway, you can change the default search in Firefox with a single click at first run and with a single click on any subsequent search. This has been available in Firefox for years already.

    (tags: firefox)
  • “2008 has really been the Year of Firefox.” It’s true: the number of Firefox users in Europe has just about tripled in 2 years.
  • Curious story of IE8 updates causing Windows to fail to boot. Anyone else heard about this? It seems extraordinary.
    (tags: ie8)

5th International Conference on Open Source Systems

(Updated 9th June, added links to papers)

I spent most of last week at the Open Source Systems 2009 conference in Skövde (pronounced “hwerv-duh”), Sweden.  It was an interesting few days, and I was impressed (rather than flattered) that the conference chair, Prof. Tony Wasserman, was able to remember that I used to work for Sun Microsystems on the basis of a 10 minute conversation we had shared in Orlando, Florida in 2005.

I thought that the keynotes were good, general introductions into the state of the ecosystem movement community topic, that Stormy Peters’ (ironically breezy) overview of open source business models managed to be inclusive without being turgid.  Brian Behlendorf’s talk on “How open source can still save the world” was not what I expected – although it was an interesting study of several essentially public sector projects (a theme of the conference) which open source can be proud.  Indeed, at the OSSCOM workshop on Saturday, Jonathan Allen started his paper with the comment that open source can also save business.

At the OSSCOM workshop, I also made my own modest contribution, “Considerations for Trademarks, Nomenclature and FLOSS Communities”, which I thought went well, although David scored me a lame 12.5% on adopting his excellent feedback.  Sorry David, I will try harder next time.

The Tenser seal of approval

The coveted Tenser seal of approval

In my paper, I argued that the importance of trademarks to open source communities is largely unrecognised.  Any sustainable project should be aware of whether it is naming its code base, its distributed product (of course, there may be several), its community, or even the right to provide services for that product.

During the subsequent discussion, one question emerged that the workshop seemed to find important, namely, “how can you tell if a company controls a project?”.  My answer may seem like a simplification, but I would argue that whoever controls the trademark by which that community’s product is known, controls the community  (in so much as you can control open source at all).  There is an implicit contract between trademark owner and community members – and where the contract is not acceptable to all parties, a fork occurs (or people leave the project altogether).   While copyright ownership may seem more important, it is only really relevant for dual-licensing (or any possible license change).  But if you want to know who governs the project, look for the trademark holder.

From Tolstoy to Tinker Bell, Down from Berkeley to Carmel

In the news, IBM is retiring old OSI-approved licenses and consolidating around the Eclipse Public License.   Good for them.  People who are running open source projects tend not to want to become legal experts, after all.   There is a contrary point of view, of course, that license proliferation is not such a problem as the best (favoured, admired, desired) licenses will be used more frequently and become the most well known.   The estimable Stephen O’Grady of RedMonk raises good points about the need not to get one’s knickers in a twist about the large number of open source licenses that exist – Occam’s soothing balm, if you will.

And yet, and yet, I don’t necessarily hold that the FLOSS crowd is always so wise in its license choices.  Specifically, I do not think that one should conclude that the slow uptake of the Gnu Affero General Public License (AGPL) means that the concerns it seeks to address are not important ones to FLOSS developers – to wit, closing the web service “loophole”, where those delivering a service using software that is distributed under a strong copyleft are not obliged to share any modifications they make in order to offer that service.

There was no better illustration of the debate than the Eben Moglen – Tim O’Reilly set-to at OSCON in 2007.  Briefly, Mr O’Reilly asserts that open source licenses are no longer relevant in a webservice world.  Mr Moglen said, (from memory), that Web 2.0 was “just thermal noise”, i.e. unimportant, compared to the wider question of Free Software.  And this is my point: one of these gentlemen will be right, one wrong, and many people are influenced by the thinking of both of them, embracing a contradiction.

On the one hand, the Free Software “funamentalists” are very clear in what constitues freedom: it is the rights that they are afforded with respect to software that runs on a computer that they own.  And suddenly, the “fundamentalists” seem quite modest in their ambitions – reasonable, even.  Richard Stallman doesn’t seem to care about what Google does with Linux code, because he is not interested in using the “trap” of cloud computing.  He is now becoming interested in the “Javascript Trap” (another Sun trademark being used with a non-approved noun, one suspects), but the Free Software movement’s relationship with webservices remains essentially orthogonal.

Many people in the the open source world, however, are more concerned with promoting successful collaborative creation, and are concerned about what impact the webservice loophole will have on what we might call the “open source incentive model”.   That is because this is what open source is – it is a codification of Free Software princples aimed at stimulating collaborative software development.  This does not mean that open source is either inherently capitalist, as Matt Asay is prone to argue, nor inherently socialist, as the straw man that Matt Asay attacked (did not) argue.

Now, the problem is this: many people in the Open Source community are influenced by the thinking of the Free Software community, and have a tendency to follow it, while distancing themselves from the “fundamentalism” (which is, of course, no such thing, it is simply that something is free or it is not, while a program may contain open and closed components, hence, there are gradations of open source).  But the Free Software movement has less to say about the issue of webservices than the Open Source movement might do.   There is, in a sense, a vacuum of philosophical leadership.

To make matters worse, license choices are havily influenced by previous license choices.  The GPL remains extraordinarily popular: heck, the GPL v2 remains extraordinarily popular.  People do not want to get into complex territory of compatibility issues, and they understand that the GPL has a stirling reputation.  What’s more, when making license choices, developers will be concerned with the welfare of their own project (and rightly so).  And so, I find it hard to argue that the aggregation license choices in favour of strong copyleft licenses which do not close the webservice loophole means that the loophole is not a serious and present concern.

At FOSDEM this year, Mark Surman gave a talk on what Free means in the context of cloud computing (if anyone has a link to a video, please let me know).  I understand that it did not generate a great deal of debate, possibly because we do not yet have a collective understanding of what the issues are.  In my view, it’s high time we start to develop one.

Human and playful and friendly

I see that the Symbian Foundation’s new logo has taken a mauling on several blogs and in the trade press.  I enjoy Andrew Orlowski’s pieces in The Register.  I’d go so far as to describe him as my favourite at El Reg, certainly since the departure of Ashlee Vance.   But like many of an intellectual bent, he is dismissive of branding.

The question people wrongly ask themselves when they consider a brand is, “do I like it?”.  This is especially true of things that one is already emotionally invested in, such as football teams and, eh, open source projects.  The real question is, “what kind of experience is this suggestive of?”.   So, what do we think?


Well, I think that the Symbian Foundation are to be congratulated.  Their new brand is, as they claim, human and playful and friendly.  It is highly distinctive and yet it feels instantly familiar.  This makes it memorable and, yes, it gives the project an identity.  And from a practical point of view, the logo is easily portable – especially important considering where Symbian plays.

People love to take pot-shots at a branding that takes risks.  But great branding is seldom uncontroversial (which is not to say that taste and ethics should not be important considerations – of course they should).  It is easy to have a logo that conforms, that is a nice piece of graphic design, but that challenges nothing.  However, to have a logo that looks a little out of place, that jars, that challenges the very behaviour of the people who it represents – it takes nerve and it takes imagination.  I think that Symbian has done an excellent job of daring to be different with this logo.

Software for the birds and bees

There has been a flurry of criticism for the internet for, er, internet critic Andrew Keen’s essay “Economy to Give Open-Source a Good Thumping“.  Mr Keen predicts (with no little relish) that an economic downturn will see people reassessing the value of their labour, which will in turn lead to an end to what we might term the shared information economy.  He goes to suggest that this economy of sharing will be recorded as

a “mania,” these mid-21st-century historians will explain, like the Dutch Tulip mania of the 1630s

In fact, contemporary thinking is that the “Dutch Tulip Mania”, if such an event transpired at all, was wildly exaggerated: the principle record is a single source, published in Scotland over 200 years after the alleged mania.  But we digress.  Mr Keen’s point appears to be that open source consists of people irrationally “giving away” the fruits of their labour.

There are three points that Mr Keen lacks in his understanding of open source:

  1. Utility (the dismal science’s placeholder for that which is desired) can take forms other than money (otherwise we would all work 24 hours a day);
  2. Not all open source code is written “for free”;
  3. In the software market the cost of unit production is close to zero, and network externalities are extremely powerful in determining the value of software goods and services.

Against this backdrop, we might consider that an economic downturn will be a good thing for open source software.  While Mr Keen evidently sees the rise of open source as a sign of decadence, in fact the emergence of the commercial open source sector coincided with the so-called dotcom bust.  Open source software tends to represent a rationalised method of production, which can reduce the frictional cost of the proprietary software model, which contains a large rump of undifferentiated and duplicative software.

What is more, software is (or can be) an industrial good.  Low-cost software means that economic activity can be stimulated with substantially less investment than in the proprietary model: just what the credit-crunch ordered.

All well and good.  But some of the refutations of Mr Keen are equally wide of the mark.  In particular, CNet’s Matt Asay (a chap never short of an opinion), who responded that open source is

a free market, capitalist phenomenon that depends upon M-O-N-E-Y.

I know others share this view, indeed, I’ve had this very discussion with no less an authority than Ian Murdock.  There is some merit in Mr Asay’s position: open source clearly is a method of market disruption in a competitive (or indeed, uncompetitive) software market.  It has the potential to decrease the value of the market and then to capture a large share of that market quickly; it can also greatly reduce the barriers to entry for suppliers and to exit for consumers.

Open source is hardly inherently anti-capitalist then.  If anything, open source frequently reflects the sharp end of the market, where competition is intensified and profit margins shrink.

So what is the problem with Mr Asay’s piece?  It is two-fold.  For one, Software development and political economy are orthogonal concepts.  For example, if we consider how software development might look in a command economy, some form of a shared codebase under a copyright license from the code owner would seem likely.  Indeed, many of the world’s most leftist governments have policies specifically designed to foster open source developement and consumption.

But lastly, we return to the point that utility is not in all cases pecuniary.  Not all free software is a loss-leader.  Many people derive great satisfaction from others using their software, from others reading their translated documents, from others benefiting from their help, indeed, from changing the world.  It is hard to put a price on such an experience.