Fellowship interview with Sean Daly

The smallest unit of freedom: a Fellow

Welcome to the first in our series of monthly interviews with a Fellow of FSFE – "the smallest unit of freedom". We’re starting off by turning the tables on Seán "The Interviewer" Daly to ask him about his chosen way to contribute to the Free Software movement.

Ciarán O’Riordan: Hi Seán. Thanks for agreeing to this interview. You’ve done a lot for FSFE and for other projects such as Groklaw, by recording events, writing articles, and above all, interviewing others. That’s not something many people do as a hobby, so how did you end up contributing in this way?

Seán Daly
Seán with a banner he
donated for FSFE’s booths

Seán Daly: Greetings Ciarán. Well, I make a good living working in IT and a few years ago I started to feel that I should contribute in some way and not just further my own interests. The free software movement places a high value on coding, and although I can write a decent bash or awk script, I’m not at a level to be able to contribute code. So I took an inventory of things I *can* do, and as a former tech journalist and audio engineer with some knowledge of digital and Web video encoding, I had the idea of recording speeches and conducting interviews. Back when I was a fulltime journalist, I enjoyed interviewing since it is usually an opportunity to go beyond official documents and statements and get a feel for the people involved in change. That’s still the case.

Arranging audio and video recordings can be an expensive proposition for an NGO, I remember asking you what was planned for the GPLv3 Barcelona conference and when you mentioned that no budget was available, I decided then and there to volunteer. You know, any one of us can make a difference in some way; I had wondered for some time in what way I could contribute and I’ve been pleased to have had the opportunity to make basic decent quality recordings available of those historic events.

COR: The first time we made contact was about the EU vs. Microsoft antitrust case. That’s quite a bureaucratic project, so what made you think it was where you wanted to get involved?

Seán Daly: I’ve been watching Microsoft for a long time, as an end user, as a journalist, and as a corporate buyer. What motivated me finally was when I saw coverage of the EU Commission antitrust case. In Europe, Microsoft’s foot-dragging in complying with the 2004 Monti Decision concerned me, and I saw that with very few exceptions, the mainstream and tech media seemed not to cover fully all that was going on, in particular the important role of the intervenors like Samba and the FSFE. I felt that since traditional journalists were missing a vital part of the story, perhaps it was time for a nontraditional journalist to step up and report on that part. And as it turned out, they were the single most important part of the story, since they did not back down.

Others like Novell, RealNetworks, Sun and even the CCIA that originally were the complainants against Microsoft ended up settling and withdrawing from the fight, and in some cases taking some of the vital evidence with them, and it left FSFE and the Samba Team and ECIS standing on the field holding the ball, so to speak, all alone, but they kept going to the successful ruling on appeal a year ago. I will never forget the tension in that Luxembourg courtroom as the thirteen judges filed out to announce the ruling and then the satisfaction of Carlo, Jeremy, Volker, and Georg afterwards. It was a privilege to interview them that afternoon, and Thomas Vinje two days later; that coverage was, I think, a missing part of the puzzle for anyone wanting to understand what was happening.

COR: Since this is the first in a series of Fellowship interviews, I have to ask your advice: What makes a good interview? Is it about getting someone to pin down their positions, or about drawing out unexpected insights? What should an interviewer keep in mind when designing questions?

Seán Daly: I think it’s important to set aside one’s personal feelings on a subject, keeping in mind the goal of understanding more thoroughly the issues. I mean, I personally am disappointed with Microsoft, but next time I am interviewing someone from Microsoft, I want to be fair, so we can understand better. Clearly, every person, every situation is different, and an interview which should have gone smoothly sometimes doesn’t. Other times, an important bit of news comes out, and it’s important to stay on the ball and follow up right away.

That said, I think it is absolutely essential to prepare as much as possible. That means knowing as much about the subject matter as the previous statements of the interviewee which of course provide clues as to their positions and interests. Some interviewees are talkative and relish the opportunity to get their message out. Others are concerned about making a mistake and are more guarded. There’s certainly an element of risk involved for them, so it’s important to make people feel at ease; the best way to do that is to let them know they will have a fair shake. Preparing questions takes time and reviewing questions with another person beforehand helps. I’ve been very fortunate with PJ, she’s a clear-minded editor.

COR: You’ve worked with high-profile people and legally sensitive topics. When a reader sees your interview, they’ve no idea what hoops you might’ve had to jump through to get it done. Is there a lot of bureaucracy, regulations, and agreements behind interviewing certain people?

Seán Daly: Yes, I could fill a boring book on that topic! Sometimes I hit a bump getting accreditation, other times an agreement mysteriously evaporates or changes. It’s the result that counts, nobody really wants to know if I could only park half a mile from the courtroom and had to jog in or how many faxes I needed to send. In adverse conditions, politeness and fairness are your friend, along with unswerving determination to get the story. To make things simple for myself, I use very high quality recording equipment and carry extra everything since Murphy’s law applies!

COR: Your interviews often cover topics that are broader or tangential to Free Software, such as fair use of copyrighted work (Copiepresse) and preserving competition in the software market (such as interviews with proprietary software companies who are supporting FSFE’s antitrust case against MS).

Seán Daly: We are living in a critical period in history where traditional law for copyrights, patents, trademarks, trade secrets, is struggling to keep pace, a sea change is underway with the increasing importance of free software and open standards, the efficiency of search engines offers fantastic access to information while threatening privacy and disrupting existing business models. At the same time, web-published information is ephemeral, fragile; future historians may encounter difficulties locating primary sources of information. PJ takes the opportunity to cover issues in depth which have been passed over by the traditional media and has encouraged me when I have suggestions.

COR: I have to ask about terminology. In almost all your interviews, the interviewees talk about "Free Software" and "GNU/Linux", instead of using other terms. I know that you politely suggest this to interviewees beforehand. How have reactions been? Do people have strong feelings about this?

Seán Daly: It’s funny you say that, I’m not sure I’ve done that often. It’s true though that I prefer the term "free software" to "open source". In fact, I prefer the French "logiciel libre" to "free software" because of the ambiguity of the English word "free". And I’m uncomfortable not saying GNU with Linux since I use GNU tools every day — bash and gawk and so on.

I think that in most conversations and particularly in interviews, an effort is made on both sides to find common words and phrases. Many interviewees understand that some words are weighted and take the trouble to understand why. I’d just as soon avoid taboos, but some commonly used words are just silly — I mean, calling illicit copying "piracy" is so ridiculous considering what has been happening recently off Somalia.

COR: There’s wildly mixed analysis of the music industry’s attempts to control people’s computers by making DRM ubiquitous. In the same week, we can see claims that DRM is doomed, and claims that it’s inevitable. From talking to some of the active groups on this, and from reading the reactions to your own interviews, how do you gauge the levels of public awareness and the optimism among the experts?

Seán Daly: At this point, my impression is that the public thinks that Digital Restrictions Management is just a fancy way of ripping them off, making them pay over and over for music or films they have already purchased in a heavy-handed effort to maintain dying business models. With music, it seems doomed. But with other works, I think it’s still to be determined. At some point, after everyone realizes DRM isn’t a good way to properly compensate content creators, hopefully a better method will be found. Initiatives such as Bandstocks show that new business models are just waiting to be developed.

COR: You’ve lived in Europe and the USA, and in Europe you’ve talked to politically active organisations and companies. Do you see differences in how campaigning, lobbying, and raising awareness is done in Europe and the USA?

Seán Daly: I daresay there are differences in style, but I think it’s mostly the Internet which has radically changed (although not eliminated) the old lobbyist power lunch.

COR: Let’s talk about audio and video file formats. I know you prefer free formats. How do you go about editing and transcoding?

Seán Daly: I always keep the original rushes and raw audio files and work on copies when editing audio or video. I interview in stereo with my voice on one side and the interviewee’s on the other. I usually normalize each channel individually; sometimes a phone interview track requires a bit of EQ though. I adore Audacity for audio editing, it’s powerful and intuitive and has lots of plugin filters available. Video is trickier, it’s more time-consuming and I haven’t found suitable free software for that yet. Transcoding is actually the easy part, because there are a number of excellent commandline tools (transcode, ffmpeg, mplayer, oggenc, ffmpeg2theora, …) and all you have to do is run a command adjusting the parameters with trial and error to hit the sweet spot of acceptable quality at low bandwidth. I always try to populate metadata fields, the Ogg container is well-suited for that. Even if search engines (Internet and local) don’t crawl that metadata today, they will someday, and it’s always a good idea to indicate copyright information, CC licence, date and place and of course the names of the people – open up any of my Ogg files with VLC and you will see that information. I’m very interested in the BBC’s free Dirac codec which apparently can offer H.264/MPEG-4 AVC quality and scalability without the patent encumbrances.

I’m disappointed that popular sites such as YouTube discourage the use of free formats. The day Flash video can encapsulate the Xiph codecs or Dirac alongside Sorenson, On2VP6 and H.264, these formats will gain wider acceptance.

COR: I’m a big fan of transcripts, and from helping you a little on some of yours, I know you like to publish complete transcripts. This contrasts with many journalists who paraphrase answers. Can you give your reasons for doing this work?

Seán Daly: Indeed you have and PJ and I are most grateful for that assistance, you and I have worked an all-nighter more than once! I feel transcriptions are extremely important because that’s how today’s search engines index — text. I have often listened to fascinating interviews on podcasts or audio files for which no text was available; what was said disappears immediately without a transcription — you can’t find it, you can’t absorb what was said. To give an example, EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes answers questions from journalists at each press conference concerning the Microsoft case, and often, her responses are very interesting. The wire services paraphrase what she says but sometimes miss a key point. I have several times transcribed Commissioner Kroes’ Q&A sessions from the EbS feed (About the MS-EU settlement, Oct 2007 and About the MS fine, Feb 2008). Of course, these are not official; the original EbS audio recording is there for that. But these transcriptions are the only source on the Net of these historic events. Web-published transcriptions can be as long as the interview, there’s no space constraint as in a newspaper or magazine.

COR: And we have to close with the crystal ball question. You’re always looking for a scoop. What projects or bodies are you keeping an eye on right now? Where do you see that someone’s going to make a move on something you’ll want to report on?

Seán Daly: You mean, show all of my cards? I can say that I monitor a certain number of subjects covered by a certain number of news sources, from press releases to wire reports to blogs. I am also subscribed to several mailing lists of interest. Alas, we have to choose our battles due to limited resources. But we will always prefer completeness and getting it right over speed and scooping others. There are two or three untold stories on the back burner which you will be sure to see some day 🙂