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Archive for the ‘Software Freedom Conservancy’ Category

Defending the 99%

Monday, October 24th, 2016

In the context of a fairly recent discussion of Free Software licence enforcement on the Linux Kernel Summit mailing list, where Matthew Garrett defended the right of users to enjoy the four freedoms upheld by the GPL, but where Linus Torvalds and others insisted that upstream corporate contributions are more important and that it doesn’t matter if the users get to see the source code, Jonas Öberg made the remarkable claim that…

“It’s almost as if Matthew is talking about benefits for the 1% whereas Linus is aiming for the benefit of the 99%.”

So, if we are to understand this correctly, a highly-privileged and famous software developer, whose position on the “tivoization” of hardware was that users shouldn’t expect to have any control over the software running on their purchases, is now seemingly echoing the sentiments of a billionaire monopolist who once said that users didn’t need to see the source code of the programs they use. That particular monopolist stated that the developers of his company’s software would take care of everything and that the users would “rely on us” because the mere notion of anybody else interacting with the source code was apparently “the opposite of what’s supposed to go on”.

Here, this famous software developer’s message is that corporations may in future enrich his and his colleagues’ work so that a device purchaser may, at some unspecified time in the future, get to enjoy a properly-maintained version of the Linux kernel running inside a purchase of theirs. All the purchaser needs to do is to stop agitating for their four freedom rights and instead effectively rely on them to look after everything. (Where “them” would be the upstream kernel development community incorporating supposedly-cooperative corporate representatives.)

Now, note once again that such kernel code would only appear in some future product, not in the now-obsolete or broken product that the purchaser currently has. So far, the purchaser may be without any proper insight into that product – apart from the dubious consolation of knowing that the vendor likes Linux enough to have embedded it in the product – and they may well be left without any control over what software the product actually ends up running. So much for relying on “them” to look after the pressing present-day needs of users.

And even with any mythical future product unboxed and powered by a more official form of Linux, the message from the vendor may very well be that at no point should the purchaser ever feel entitled to look inside the device at the code, to try and touch it, to modify it, improve or fix it, and they should absolutely not try and use that device as a way of learning about computing, just as the famous developer and his colleagues were able to do when they got their start in the industry. So much for relying on “them” to look after the future needs of users.

(And let us not even consider that a bunch of other code delivered in a product may end up violating other projects’ licences because those projects did not realise that they had to “make friends” with the same group of dysfunctional corporations.)

Somehow, I rather feel that Matthew Garrett is the one with more of an understanding of what it is like to be among the 99%: where you buy something that could potentially be insecure junk as soon as it is unboxed, where the vendor might even arrogantly declare that the licensing does not apply to them. And he certainly has an understanding of what the 99% actually want: to be able to do something about such things right now, rather than to be at the mercy of lazy, greedy and/or predatory corporate practices; to finally get the product with all the features you thought your money had managed to buy you in the first place.

All of this ground-level familiarity seems very much in contrast to that of some other people who presumably only “hear” via second- or third-hand accounts what the average user or purchaser supposedly experiences, whose privilege and connections will probably get “them” what they want or need without any trouble at all. Let us say that in this dispute Matthew Garrett is not the one suffering from what might be regarded as “benevolent dictator syndrome”.

The Misrepresentation of Others

And one thing Jonas managed to get taken in by was the despicable and continued misrepresentation of organisations like the Software Freedom Conservancy, their staff, and their activities. Despite the public record showing otherwise, certain participants in the discussion were only too happy to perpetuate the myth of such organisations being litigious, and to belittle those organisations’ work, in order to justify their own hostile and abusive tone towards decent, helpful and good people.

No-one has ever really been forced to choose between cooperation, encouragement, community-building and the pursuit of enforcement. Indeed, the organisations pursuing responsible enforcement strategies, in reminding people of their responsibilities, are actually encouraging companies to honour licences and to respect the people who chose such licences for their works. The aim is ultimately to integrate today’s licence violators into the community of tomorrow as honest, respectable and respectful participants.

Community-building can therefore occur even when pointing out to people what they have been doing wrong. But without any substance, licences would provide only limited powers in persuading companies to do the right thing. And the substance of licences is rooted in their legal standing, meaning that occasionally a licence-violating entity might need to be reminded that its behaviour may be scrutinised in a legal forum and that the company involved may experience negative financial and commercial effects as a result.

Reminding others that licences have substance and requiring others to observe such licences is not “force”, at least not the kind of illegitimate force that is insinuated by various factions who prefer the current situation of widespread licence violation and lip service to the Linux brand. It is the instrument through which the authors of Free Software works can be heard and respected when all other reasonable channels of redress have been shut down. And, crucially, it is the instrument through which the needs of the end-user, the purchaser, the people who do no development at all – indeed, all of the people who paid good money and who actually funded the product making use of the Free Software at risk, whose money should also be funding the development of that software – can be heard and respected, too.

I always thought that “the 1%” were the people who had “got theirs” already, the privileged, the people who promise the betterment of everybody else’s lives through things like trickle-down economics, the people who want everything to go through them so that they get to say who benefits or not. If pandering to well-financed entities for some hypothetical future pay-off while they conduct business as usual at everybody else’s expense is “for the benefit of the 99%”, then it seems to me that Jonas has “the 1%” and “the 99%” the wrong way round.

Testing Times for Free Software and Open Hardware

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

The last few months haven’t been too kind on Free Software and open hardware initiatives in a number of ways. Here, in a shorter form than one might usually expect from me, are some problematic developments on topics that I may have covered in the past year.

Software Freedom Undervalued

About a couple of months ago, the Software Freedom Conservancy started a fund-raising campaign after it became apparent that companies could not be relied upon to support the organisation’s activities. Since the start of the campaign, many individuals have stepped up and pledged financial support of their own, which is very generous of them, as is the support of enlightened organisations that have offered to match individual contributions.

Sadly, such generosity seems not to be shared by many of the largest companies making money from Free Software and from Linux in particular, and thus from the non-financial contributions that make projects like Linux viable in the first place, with many of those even coming from those same generous individuals who have supported the Conservancy financially. And let us consider for a moment why one prominent umbrella organisation’s members might not want to enforce the GPL, especially given that some of them have been successfully prosecuted for violating that licence, in relation to various Free Software projects, in the past.

The Proprietary Instincts of the BBC

The BBC Micro Bit was a topic covered in the last year, when I indicated a degree of caution about the mistakes of the past being repeated needlessly. And indeed, for some time, everything was being done behind the curtain of a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), meaning that very little information was being made available about the device and accompanying materials, and thus very little could be done by the average member of the public to prepare for the availability of the device, let alone develop their own materials, software, accessories or anything else for it.

Since then, a degree of secrecy has been eliminated, and efforts have been made to get the embedded variant of Python known as Micropython working on the board. However, certain parts of that work still appear to be encumbered by NDA, arguably making the effort of developing Python-related materials something of a social networking exercise. Meanwhile, notorious industry monopolist, Microsoft, somehow managed to muscle in on the initiative and take control of the principally-supported method of developing software with the device. I guess people at the BBC and their friends in politics and business don’t always learn from the mistakes of the past, particularly as they spend other people’s money.

The Walled Garden Party’s Hangover for Free Software Development

Just over twelve months ago, I made some observations about the Python core development group’s attraction to GitHub. It seems that the infatuation with the enthusiastic masses and their inevitable unleashing on Python assets, with the expectation of stimulating an exponential upturn in development activity, will now be gratified through a migration of various Python infrastructure components to the proprietary and centralised service that GitHub offers. (I have my doubts as to whether CPython contribution barriers are really the cause of Python’s current malaise, despite the usual clamour for Git and the associated “network effects” amongst a community of self-proclaimed version control wizards whose powers somehow don’t extend to mastering simple workflows with other tools.)

Anatoly Techtonik makes some interesting points, which will presumably go unheard because those involved have all decided not to listen to him any more. One of the more disturbing ones is that the “comparison shopping” mentality, where Free Software developers abandon their colleagues writing various tools and systems in favour of random corporations offering proprietary stuff at no cost, may well result in the Free Software solutions in such areas becoming seen as uncompetitive and unattractive. What those making such foolish decisions fail to realise is that their own projects can easily get the same treatment, if nobody bothers to see beyond the end of their own nose.

The result of all this is less funding and fewer resources for Free Software projects, with potentially fewer contributions, too, as the attraction of supporting “losing” solutions starts to fade. Community-oriented Free Software is arguably grossly underfunded as it is: we don’t really need other Free Software developers abandoning or undermining their colleagues while ridiculing those colleagues’ “ideological purity“. And, of course, volunteer effort will undoubtedly be burned up in the needless migration to the proprietary solution, setting everyone up for another costly transition down the road, which experience indicates is always more work than anyone anticipated (if they even bothered to think ahead at all).

PayPal: Doesn’t Pay, Not Your Pal

It has been a long time since I wrote about the Neo900 project. Things were looking promising: necessary components had been secured, and everyone was just waiting for Nikolaus to finish his work with the Pyra handheld console. And then we learned that PayPal had decided to hold a significant amount of money as a form of “security”, thus cutting off a vital source of funds for actually doing the work. Apparently, PayPal have a habit of doing this kind of thing, on one reported occasion even taking the opportunity to then offer loans to those people they deliberately put in such a difficult position.

If you supported the Neo900 project and pledged funds via PayPal, you need to tell PayPal to actually pay the project. You know: like the verb in their company name. Otherwise, in the worst case, you may not only not get a Neo900 and not see it developed to completion, but you will also have loaned your money to a large corporation for a substantial period and earned no interest on that involuntary loan, perhaps even incurring fees for the privilege. (So, please see the “How to fix it” section of the relevant article.)

Maybe in 2016, people will become a lot clearer about who their real friends are. Let us hope so!

Supporting the Software Freedom Conservancy

Saturday, December 5th, 2015

Daniel Pocock asks whether supporting the Software Freedom Conservancy is the right thing to do, given the recent announcement of a fund-raising drive inviting individuals to sustain the organisation’s activities. The short answer is “yes it is”, but the question and the longer answer are still worth thinking about.

An Overview

A certain focus has been placed on the Conservancy’s licensing compliance activities, which are valuable for a number of reasons that we shall consider in a moment, but let us also consider the other work done by the organisation:

Although other organisations exist to look after Free Software projects in certain ways, many only offer technical facilities to those projects, whereas others rely on copyright assignments or comparable instruments in order to act as stewards for those projects. Unusually, the Conservancy instead offers a framework where projects may delegate responsibility for activities that would otherwise take time away from the vital work of developing software, rather than assuming all responsibility and leadership for a project as a starting point for cooperation.

So, by working with the Conservancy, developers may retain their project’s autonomy while being able to get help from the Conservancy when they need it. Indeed, the merits of the Conservancy’s offerings complement the offerings of other organisations in such a way that Debian has chosen to work more closely with the Conservancy to safeguard the interests of those developers making their work available via the Debian software distribution.

The image of member project logos gives a representative indication of the organisation’s influence and importance in the Free Software world today. Many of these projects provide vital infrastructure and tools that Free Software users and developers rely upon every single day.

Compliance and Enforcement

But what about those licensing compliance or licensing enforcement activities undertaken by the Conservancy? Some people might wonder whether there is a real need to ensure that individuals and organisations adhere to Free Software licences, and if they do not, whether it is worthwhile taking those parties to task on such matters. Others, arguably with their own agenda, may even dislike the very idea of bringing anyone to account for not respecting the Free Software licensing of various works.

First of all, we must ask whether Free Software licences are being violated. The sad answer to this is “on an industrial scale“, given the glut of products being manufactured on the back of Free Software and then sold without even notifying customers of their rights. When companies are approached about the source code for the copyleft-licensed software provided in their products, it is by all accounts a rare occurrence to be directed to a well-managed repository of code that can be built, installed and used on the product. If one is lucky, a hastily-prepared bundle of sources might be thrown over the wall, leaving the enquirer with the task of verifying that it really does generate the originally-shipped software.

And beyond those more favourable outcomes is the case of the mystery “original design manufacturer”, who was merely passing on stuff concocted by the platform vendor, with everybody else insisting that they hardly touched anything and that the software is someone else’s responsibility. Or the manufacturer who declares that they are not affected by the software licensing and that anything they find on the Internet is presumably fair game to use as they please.

Now, some people would advise Free Software developers not to expect too much after contributing anything to a project. Such people would probably also advise developers to use permissive licences: that way, they won’t build up any expectations around what people might do with their work, nor hold out any hopes that others might benefit from seeing the source code down the line.

Certainly, it rather suits some of those people to cultivate the notion that getting one’s code out there into widespread use should be the principal reward for a Free Software developer, not because it actually encourages generosity or delivers a sense of satisfaction or recognition, but because it keeps those developers in their place and discourages them from expecting anything more. Meanwhile, various companies do very nicely out of repackaging and selling such code, denying end-users any insight into – or control over – the code they end up using, and (of course) denying them the right to give away or sell such code to others themselves.

When choosing to use a copyleft licence, Free Software developers are making a valid statement: they are actively stating that anyone who receives their software should enjoy the benefits of being able to modify, install, run and redistribute it to others who would also benefit from it. This is nothing that anyone should be ashamed of, nor should it be something that people should be forced to abandon because others (for whatever reason) do not share the same goals or vision. But at the same time, it perhaps requires more attention to be paid towards those redistributing the software. If others fail to uphold the licence, there needs to be some mechanism in place to demand a remedy.

Some people are obviously never going to like the idea of licence enforcement. For a start, licence violators are not going to like it: it means that they can no longer get away with their shoddy engineering practices and turning a quick profit on code they happened to find online. It has previously been made very apparent that apologists for licence violators are likely to claim that licence enforcement will only “scare away business from open source” (being of the ideological persuasion that considers “open source” as a business productivity tool, as opposed to Free Software which is about end-user freedoms), and they also tend to advocate for more permissively-licensed software so that it will be virtually impossible for the average software outfit not to accidentally clear the resulting lower threshold for licence compliance.

But why should Free Software developers care about the convenience of blatantly profiteering, inept and often hostile companies? No-one forces those companies to use the software, and if they don’t like the licensing terms, they can always go and use something else. The problem here is firmly with the companies in question (and their apologists): they really want to use such software, but they also want to behave as if they own it, all so that they get to decide what kind of licence it might have, and all without having done the hard work of actually writing it themselves. In short, they want it all! Well, forgive the rest of us for not giving them the ingredients of a charmed existence on a silver platter!

Investments of Time and Money

Unfortunately, chasing up licence violators is costly in terms of time and money. The Conservancy actually takes a very gentle approach to seeking licensing compliance when you consider that other people accused of copyright infringement can expect hostile industry bodies working law-enforcement agencies like puppets and performing on-the-spot “audits” (not to mention the endless barrage of messaging about “piracy” aimed at individuals).

Here, Daniel gets on to something fairly important. While certain figures promote the virtues of volunteering one’s own time to write “open source” software, presumably around a day job which does not reward the average developer for writing Free Software, certain aspects of software development and distribution cannot be so easily covered by spontaneous volunteer contributions. Money is required, but that money has to come from somewhere. Again, people can be persuaded to donate their own money (alongside their own time) to help make things happen, but that money also has to come from somewhere.

Sadly, with the cultivation of the notion of the noble volunteer, together with the misguided idea that “open source” be promoted as the cheap or free-of-charge alternative to “commercial” software, the realm of Free Software development – as far as community-centred projects, not corporate projects, are concerned – has been left chronically underfunded. And when many corporate participants prioritise their own interests, the result is a funding gap that leaves vital projects undone or unfinished and a more general sustainability problem around how such projects may be started, staffed and supported.

Lately, I have read a few articles about people burning out, perhaps because they took on too much work, and perhaps because they believed that their “marketable skills” would be enhanced by a heavy portfolio of volunteer responsibilities, making them attractive to potential employers. Again, the interests of profit-making businesses are put before the needs or values of the individual, with the individual even feeling obliged to make this so. Indeed, there are commercial interests which gain from Free Software remaining perpetually underfunded: proprietary software vendors can portray Free Software solutions as being less capable and somehow worth less. That results in Free Software projects, whose offerings would be improved and more competitive with more available revenue, actually getting less and less funding, interest and support over time.

We should not be pandering to the interests of those who are effectively impoverishing us, degrading our life quality, or forcing us to choose between the things we believe in and the means to be able to live a decent-enough life. Quite how we can develop a sustainable stream of funding for projects that would benefit everybody, along with forms of organisation where such actual work may be undertaken, is a topic for another time. However, one way of stopping the exploitation of developers is to uphold the licences through which those developers have shared their contributions, and that requires us to realise that such efforts also require ongoing funding to become viable and to remain so.

So, of course, I believe that supporting the Software Freedom Conservancy is the right thing to do. And beyond the good work that is done by that organisation, sustained by what is effectively an investment in the continued viability of Free Software in a hostile world, I hope that people will gradually realise that investment is also more generally needed to sustain the creation and maintenance of Free Software as well.