Paul Boddie's Free Software-related blog

Archive for the ‘licensing’ 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.

Random Questions about Fairphone Source Code Availability

Saturday, September 26th, 2015

I was interested to read the recent announcement about source code availability for the first Fairphone device. I’ve written before about the threat to that device’s continued viability and Fairphone’s vague position on delivering a device that properly supports Free Software. It is nice to see that the initiative takes such matters seriously and does not seem to feel that letting its partners serve up what they have lying around is sufficient. However, a few questions arise, starting with the following quote from the announcement:

We can happily say that we have recently obtained a software license from all our major partners and license holders that allows us to modify the Fairphone 1 software and release new versions to our users. Getting that license also required us to obtain rights to use and distribute Mentor Graphics’s RTOS used on the phone. (We want to thank Mentor Graphics in making it possible for us to acquire the distribution license for their RTOS, as well as other partners for helping us achieve this.)

I noted before that various portions of the software are already subject to copyleft licensing, but if we ignore those (and trust that the sources were already being made available), it is interesting to consider the following questions:

  • What is “the Fairphone 1 software” exactly?
  • Fairphone may modify the software but what about its customers?
  • What role does the Mentor Graphics RTOS have? Can it be replaced by customers with something else?
  • Do the rights to use and distribute the RTOS extend to customers?
  • Do those rights extend to the source code of the RTOS, and do those rights uphold the four freedoms?

On further inspection, some contradictions emerge, perhaps most efficiently encapsulated by the following quote:

Now that Fairphone has control over the Fairphone 1 source code, what’s next? First of all, we can say that we have no plans to stop supporting the Fairphone hardware. We will continue to apply security fixes as long as it is feasible for the years to come. We will also keep exploring ways to increase the longevity of the Fairphone 1. Possibilities include upgrading to a more recent Android version, although we would like to manage expectations here as this is still very much a longshot dependent on cooperation from license holders and our own resources.

If Fairphone has control over the source code, why is upgrading to a more recent Android version dependent on cooperation with licence holders? If Fairphone “has control” then the licence holders should already have provided the necessary permissions for Fairphone to actually take control, just as one would experience with the four freedoms. One wonders which permissions have been withheld and whether these are being illegitimately withheld for software distributed under copyleft licences.

With a new device in the pipeline, I respect the persistence of Fairphone in improving the situation, but perhaps the following quote summarises the state of the industry and the struggle for sustainable licensing and licence compliance:

It is rather unusual for a small company like Fairphone to get such a license (usually ODMs get these and handle most of the work for their clients) and it is uncommon that a company attempts and manages to obtain such a license towards the end of the economic life cycle of the product.

Sadly, original design manufacturers (ODMs) have a poor reputation: often being known for throwing binaries over the wall whilst being unable or unwilling to supply the corresponding sources, with downstream manufacturers and retailers claiming that they have no leverage to rectify such licence violations. Although the injustices and hardships of those working to supply the raw materials for products like the Fairphone, along with those of the people working to construct the devices themselves, make other injustices seem slight – thinking especially of those experienced by software developers whose copyright is infringed by dubious industry practices – dealing with unethical and untidy practices wherever they may be found should be part of the initiative’s objectives.

From what I’ve seen and heard, Fairphone 2 should have a better story for chipset support and Free Software, but again, an inspection of the message raises some awkward questions. For example:

In the coming months we are going to launch several programs that address different aspects of creating fairer software. For now, one of the best tools for us to reach these goals is to embrace open source principles. With this in mind and without further ado, we’re excited to announce that we are going to release the complete build environment for Fairphone OS on Fairphone 2, which contains the full open source code, all the tools and the binary blobs that will allow users to build their own Fairphone OS.

To be fair, binary blobs are often difficult to avoid: desktop computers often use them for various devices, and even devices like the Neo900 that emphasise a completely Free Software stack will end up using them for certain functions (mitigating this by employing other technical measures). Making the build environment available is a good thing: frequently, this aspect is overlooked and anyone requesting the source code can be left guessing about build configuration details in an exercise that is effectively a matter of doing the vendor’s licence compliance work for them. But here, we are left wondering where the open source code ends, where binary blobs will be padding out the distribution, and what those blobs are actually for.

We need to keep asking difficult questions about such matters even if what Fairphone is doing is worthy in its own right. Not only does it safeguard the interests of the customers involved, but it also helps Fairphone to focus on doing the right thing. It does feel unkind to criticise what seems like a noble initiative for not doing more when they obviously try rather hard to do the right thing in so many respects. But by doing the right thing in terms of the software as well, Fairphone can uphold its own reputation and credibility: something that all businesses need to remember, as certain very large companies have very recently discovered.

New Fairphone, New Features, Same Old Software Story?

Saturday, August 15th, 2015

I must admit that I haven’t been following Fairphone of late, so it was a surprise to see that vague details of the second Fairphone device have been published on the Fairphone Web site. One aspect that seems to be a substantial improvement is that of hardware modularity. Since the popularisation of the notion that such a device could be built by combining functional units as if they were simple building blocks, with a lot of concepts, renderings and position statements coming from a couple of advocacy initiatives, not much else has actually happened in terms of getting devices out for people to use and develop further. And there are people with experience of designing such end-user products who are sceptical about the robustness and economics of such open-ended modular solutions. To see illustrations of a solution that will presumably be manufactured takes the idea some way along the road to validation.

If it is possible to, say, switch out the general-purpose computing unit of the Fairphone with another one, then it can be said that even if the Fairphone initiative fails once again to deliver a software solution that is entirely Free Software, perhaps because the choice of hardware obliges the initiative to deliver opaque “binary-only” payloads, then the opportunity might be there for others to deliver a bottom-to-top free-and-open solution as a replacement component. But one might hope that it should not be necessary to “opt in” to getting a system whose sources can be obtained, rebuilt and redeployed: that the second Fairphone device might have such desirable characteristics out of the box.

Now, it does seem that Fairphone acknowledges the existence and the merits of Free Software, at least in very broad terms. Reading the support site provides us with an insight into the current situation with regard to software freedom and Fairphone:

Our goal is to take a more open source approach to be able to offer owners more choice and control over their phone’s OS. For example, we want to make the source code available to the developer community and we are also in discussions with other OS vendors to look at the possibility of offering alternative operating systems for the Fairphone 2. However, at the moment there are parts of the software that are owned or licensed by third parties, so we are still investigating the technical and legal requirements to accomplish our goals of open software.

First of all, ignoring vague terms like “open software” that are susceptible to “openwashing” (putting the label “open” on something that really isn’t), it should be noted that various parts of the deployed software will, through their licensing, oblige the Fairphone initiative to make the corresponding source code available. This is not a matter that can be waved away with excuses about people’s hands being tied, that it is difficult to coordinate, or whatever else the average GPL-violating vendor might make. If copyleft-licensed code ships, the sources must follow.

Now there may also be proprietary software on the device (or permissively-licensed software bearing no obligation for anyone to release the corresponding source, which virtually amounts to the same thing) and that would clearly be against software freedom and should be something Fairphone should strongly consider avoiding, because neither end-users nor anyone who may wish to help those users would have any control over such software, and they would be completely dependent on the vendor, who in turn would be completely dependent on their suppliers, who in turn might suddenly not care about the viability of that software or the devices on which it is deployed. So much for sustainability under such circumstances!

As I noted before, having control over the software is not a perk for those who wish to “geek out” over the internals of a product: it is a prerequisite for product viability, longevity and sustainability. Let us hope that Fairphone can not only learn and apply the lessons from their first device, which may indeed have occurred with the choice of a potentially supportable chipset this time around, but that the initiative can also understand and embrace their obligations to those who produced the bulk of their software (as well as to their customers) in a coherent and concrete fashion. It would be a shame if, once again, an unwillingness to focus on software led to another missed opportunity, and the need for another version of the device to be brought to market to remedy deficiencies in what is otherwise a well-considered enterprise.

Now, if only Fairphone could organise their Web site in a more coherent fashion, putting useful summaries of essential information in obvious places instead of being buried in some random forum post

You can learn a lot from people’s terminology

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015

The Mailpile project has been soliciting feedback on the licensing of their product, but I couldn’t let one of the public responses go by without some remarks. Once upon a time, as many people may remember, a disinformation campaign was run by Microsoft to attempt to scare people away from copyleft licences, employing insensitive terms like “viral” and “cancer”. And so, over a decade later, here we have an article employing the term “viral” liberally to refer to copyleft licences.

Now, as many people already know, copyleft licences are applied to works by their authors so that those wishing to contribute to the further development of those works will do so in a way that preserves the “share-alike” nature of those works. In other words, the recipient of such works promises to extend to others the privileges they experienced themselves upon receiving the work, notably the abilities to see and to change how it functions, and the ability to pass on the work, modified or not, under the same conditions. Such “fair sharing” is intended to ensure that everyone receiving such works may be equal participants in experiencing and improving the work. The original author is asking people to join them in building something that is useful for everyone.

Unfortunately, all this altruism is frowned upon by some individuals and corporations who would prefer to be able to take works, to use, modify and deploy them as they see fit, and to refuse to participate in the social contract that copyleft encourages. Instead, those individuals and corporations would rather keep their own modifications to such works secret, or even go as far as to deny others the ability to understand and change any part of those works whatsoever. In other words, some people want a position of power over their own users or customers: they want the money that their users and customers may offer – the very basis of the viability of their precious business – and in return for that money they will deny their users or customers the opportunity to know even what goes into the product they are getting, never mind giving them the chance to participate in improving it or exercising control over what it does.

From the referenced public response to the licensing survey, I learned another term: “feedstock”. I will admit that I had never seen this term used before in the context of software, or I don’t recall its use in such a way, but it isn’t difficult to transfer the established meaning of the word to the context of software from the perspective of someone portraying copyleft licences as “viral”. I suppose that here we see another divide being erected between people who think they should have most of the power (and who are somehow special) and the grunts who merely provide the fuel for their success: “feedstock” apparently refers to all the software that enables the special people’s revenue-generating products with their “secret ingredients” (or “special sauce” as the author puts it) to exist in the first place.

It should be worrying for anyone spending any time or effort on writing software that by permissively licensing your work it will be treated as mere “feedstock” by people who only appreciate your work as far as they could use it without giving you a second thought. To be fair, the article’s author does encourage contributing back to projects as “good karma and community”, but then again this statement is made in the context of copyleft-licensed projects, and the author spends part of a paragraph bemoaning the chore of finding permissively-licensed projects so as to not have to contribute anything back at all. If you don’t mind working for companies for free and being told that you don’t deserve to see what they did to your own code that they nevertheless couldn’t get by without, maybe a permissive licence is a palatable choice for you, but remember that the permissive licensing will most likely be used to take privileges away from other recipients: those unfortunates who are paying good money won’t get to see how your code works with all the “secret stuff” bolted on, either.

Once upon a time, Bill Gates remarked, “A lot of customers in a sense don’t want — the notion that they would go in and tinker with the source code, that’s the opposite of what’s supposed to go on. We’re supposed to give that to them and it’s our problem to make sure that it works perfectly and they rely on us.” This, of course, comes from a man who enjoys substantial power through accumulation of wealth by various means, many of them involving the denial of choice, control and power to others. It is high time we all stopped listening to people who disempower us at every opportunity so that they can enrich themselves at our expense.

Making the Best of a Bad Deal

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

I had the opportunity over the holidays to browse the January 2015 issue of “Which?” – the magazine of the Consumers’ Association in Britain – which, amongst other things, covered the topic of “technology ecosystems“. Which? has a somewhat patchy record when technology matters are taken into consideration: on the one hand, reviews consider the practical and often mundane aspects of gadgets such as battery life, screen brightness, and so on, continuing their tradition of giving all sorts of items a once over; on the other hand, issues such as platform choice and interoperability are typically neglected.

Which? is very much pitched at the “empowered consumer” – someone who is looking for a “good deal” and reassurances about an impending purchase – and so the overriding attitude is one that is often in evidence in consumer societies like Britain: what’s in it for me? In other words, what goodies will the sellers give me to persuade me to choose them over their competitors? (And aren’t I lucky that these nice companies are throwing offers at me, trying to win my custom?) A treatment of ecosystems should therefore be somewhat interesting reading because through the mere use of the term “ecosystem” it acknowledges that alongside the usual incentives and benefits that the readership is so keen to hear about, there are choices and commitments to be made, with potentially negative consequences if one settles in the wrong ecosystem. (Especially if others are hell-bent on destroying competing ecosystems in a “war” as former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop – now back at Microsoft, having engineered the sale of a large chunk of Nokia to, of course, Microsoft – famously threatened in another poor choice of imagery as part of what must be the one of the most insensitively-formulated corporate messages of recent years.)

Perhaps due to the formula behind such articles in Which? and similar arenas, some space is used to describe the benefits of committing to an ecosystem.  Above the “expert view” describing the hassles of switching from a Windows phone to an Android one, the title tells us that “convenience counts for a lot”. But the article does cover problems with the availability of applications and services depending on the platform chosen, and even the matter of having to repeatedly buy access to content comes up, albeit with a disappointing lack of indignance for a topic that surely challenges basic consumer rights. The conclusion is that consumers should try and keep their options open when choosing which services to use. Sensible and uncontroversial enough, really.

The Consequences of Apathy

But sadly, Which? is once again caught in a position of reacting to technology industry change and the resulting symptoms of a deeper malaise. When reviewing computers over the years, the magazine (and presumably its sister publications) always treated the matter of platform choice with a focus on “PCs and Macs” exclusively, with the latter apparently being “the alternative” (presumably in a feeble attempt to demonstrate a coverage of choice that happens to exist in only two flavours). The editors would most likely protest that they can only cover the options most widely available to buy in a big-name store and that any lack of availability of a particular solution – say, GNU/Linux or one of the freely available BSDs – is the consequence of a lack of consumer interest, and thus their readership would also be uninterested.

Such an unwillingness to entertain genuine alternatives, and to act in the interests of members of their audience who might be best served by those solutions, demonstrates that Which? is less of a leader in consumer matters than its writers might have us believe. Refusing to acknowledge that Which? can and does drive demand for alternatives, only to then whine about the bundled products of supposed consumer interest, demonstrates a form of self-imposed impotence when faced with the coercion of proprietary product upgrade schedules. Not everyone – even amongst the Which? readership – welcomes the impending vulnerability of their computing environment as another excuse to go shopping for shiny new toys, nor should they be thankful that Which? has done little or nothing to prevent the situation from occurring in the first place.

Thus, Which? has done as much as the rest of the mainstream technology press to unquestioningly sustain the monopolistic practices of the anticompetitive corporate repeat offender, Microsoft, with only a cursory acknowledgement of other platforms in recent years, qualified by remarks that Free Software alternatives such as GNU/Linux and LibreOffice are difficult to get started with or not what people are used to. After years of ignoring such products and keeping them marginalised, this would be the equivalent of denying someone the chance to work and then criticising them for not having a long list of previous employers to vouch for them on their CV.  Noting that 1.1-billion people supposedly use Microsoft Office (“one in seven people on the planet”) makes for a nice statistic in the sidebar of the print version of the article, but how many people have a choice in doing so or, for that matter, in using other Microsoft products bundled with computers (or foisted on office workers or students due to restrictive or corrupt workplace or institutional policies)? Which? has never been concerned with such topics, or indeed the central matter of anticompetitive software bundling, or its role in the continuation of such practices in the marketplace: strange indeed for a consumer advocacy publication.

At last, obliged to review a selection of fundamentally different ecosystem choices – as opposed to pretending that different vendor badges on anonymous laptops provide genuine choice – Which? has had to confront the practical problems brought about by an absence of interoperability: that consumers might end up stranded with a large, non-transferable investment in something they no longer wish to be a part of. Now, the involvement of a more diverse selection of powerful corporate interests have made such matters impossible to ignore. One gets the impression that for now at least, the publication cannot wish such things away and return to the lazy days of recommending that everyone line up and pay a single corporation their dues, refusing to believe that there could be anything else out there, let alone usable Free Software platforms.

Beyond Treating the Symptoms

Elsewhere in the January issue, the latest e-mail scam is revealed. Of course, a campaign to widen the adoption of digitally-signed mail would be a start, but that is probably too much to expect from Which?: just as space is dedicated to mobile security “apps” in this issue, countless assortments of antivirus programs have been peddled and reviewed in the past, but solving problems effectively requires a leader rather than a follower. Which? may do the tedious job of testing kettles, toasters, washing-up liquids, and much more to a level of thoroughness that would exhaust most people’s patience and interest. And to the publication’s credit, a certain degree of sensible advice is offered on topics such as online safety, albeit with the usual emphasis on proprietary software for the copy of Windows that members of its readership were all forced to accept. But in technology, Which? appears to be a mere follower, suggesting workarounds rather than working to build a fair market for safe, secure and interoperable products.

It is surely time for Which? to join the dots and to join other organisations in campaigning for fundamental change in the way technology is delivered by vendors and used throughout society. Then, by upholding a fair marketplace, interoperability, access to digital signature and encryption technologies, true ownership of devices and of purchased content, and all the things already familiar to Free Software and online rights advocates, they might be doing their readership a favour after all.

Licensing in a Post Copyright World: Some Clarifications

Sunday, July 28th, 2013

Every now and then, someone voices their dissatisfaction with the GNU General Public License (GPL). A recent example is the oddly titled Licensing in a Post Copyright World: odd because if anything copyright is getting stronger, even though public opposition to copyright legislation and related measures is also growing. Here I present some necessary clarifications for anyone reading the above article. This is just a layman’s interpretation, not legal advice.

Licence Incompatibility

It is no secret that code licensed only under specific versions of the GPL cannot be combined with code under other specific versions of the GPL such that the resulting combination will have a coherent and valid licence. But why are the licences incompatible? Because the decision was taken to strengthen the GPL in version 3 (GPLv3), but since this means adding more conditions to the licence that were not present in version 2 (GPLv2), and since GPLv2 does not let people who are not the authors of the code involved add new conditions, the additional conditions of GPLv3 cannot be applied to the “GPLv2 only” licensed code. Meanwhile, the “GPLv3 only” licensed code requires these additional conditions and does not allow people who are not the authors of the code to strip them away to make the resulting whole distributable under GPLv2. There are ways to resolve this as I mention below.

(There apparently was an initiative to make version 2.2 of the GPL as a more incremental revision of the licence, although incorporating AGPLv3 provisions, but according to one of the central figures in the GPL drafting activity, work progressed on GPLv3 instead. I am sure some people wouldn’t have liked the GPLv2.2 anyway, as the AGPLv3 provisions seem to be one of many things they don’t like.)

Unnecessary Amendments

Why is the above explanation about licence compatibility so awkward? Because of the “only” stipulation that people put on their code, against the advice of the authors of the licence. It turns out that some people have so little trust in the organisation that wrote the licence they have nevertheless chosen to use that in a flourish of self-assertion, they needlessly stipulate “only” instead of “or any later version” and feel that they have mastered the art of licensing.

So the problems experienced by projects who put “only” everywhere, becoming “stuck” on certain GPL versions is a situation of their own making, like someone seeing a patch of wet cement and realising that their handprint can be preserved for future generations to enjoy. Other projects suffer from such distrust, too, because even if they use “or any later version” to future-proof their licensing, they can be held back by the “only” crowd if they make use of that crowd’s software, rendering the licence upgrade option ineffective.

It is somewhat difficult to make licences that request that people play fair and at the same time do not require people to actually do anything to uphold that fairness, so when those who write the licences give some advice, it is somewhat impertinent to reject that advice and then to blame those very people for one’s own mistake later on. Even people who have done the recommended thing, but who suffer from “only” proliferation amongst the things on which their code depends should be blaming the people who put “only” everywhere, not the people who happened to write the licence in the first place.

A Political Movement

The article mentions that the GPL has become a “political platform”. But the whole notion of copyleft has been political from the beginning because it is all about a social contract between the developers and the end-users: not exactly the preservation of a monopoly on a creative work that the initiators of copyright had in mind. The claim is made that Apple shuns GPLv3 because it is political. In fact, companies like Apple and Nokia chiefly avoid GPLv3 because the patent language has been firmed up and makes those companies commit to not suing recipients of the code at will. (Nokia trumpeted a patent promise at one point, as if the company was exhibiting extreme generosity, but it turned out that they were obliged to license the covered patents because of the terms of GPLv2.) Apple has arguably only accepted the GPL in the past because the company could live with the supposed inconvenience of working with a wider development community on that community’s terms. As projects like WebKit have shown, even when obliged to participate under a copyleft licence, Apple can make collaboration so awkward that some participants (such as Google) would rather cultivate their own fork than deal with Apple’s obsession to control everything.

It is claimed that “the license terms are a huge problem for companies”, giving the example of Apple wanting to lock down their products and forbid anyone from installing anything other than Apple-approved software on devices that they have paid for and have in their own possession, claiming that letting people take control of their devices would obligate manufacturers to “get rid of the devices’ security systems”. In fact, it is completely possible to give the choice to users to either live with the restrictions imposed by the vendor and be able to access whichever online “app” store is offered by that vendor, or to let those users “root” or “jailbreak” their device and to tell them that they must find other sources of software and content. Such choices do not break any security systems at all, or at least not ones that we should be caring very much about.

People like to portray the FSF as being inflexible and opposed to the interests of businesses. However, the separation of the AGPL and the GPL contradicts such convenient assertions. Meanwhile, the article seems to suggest that we should blame the GPL for Apple’s inflexibility, which is, of course, absurd.

Blaming the Messenger

The article blames the AGPLv3 for the proliferation of “open core” business models. Pointing the finger at the licence and blaming it for the phenomenon is disingenuous since one could very easily concoct a licence that requires people to choose either no-cost usage, where they must share their code, or paid usage, where they get to keep their code secret. The means by which people can impose such a choice is their ownership of the code.

Although people can enforce an “open core” model more easily using copyleft licensing as opposed to permissive licensing, this is a product of the copyright ownership or assignment regime in place for a project, not something that magically materialises because a copyleft licence was chosen. It should be remembered that copyleft licences effectively regulate and work best with projects having decentralised ownership. Indeed, people have become more aware of copyright and licensing transfers and assignments perhaps as a result of “open core” business models and centralised project ownership, and they should be distrustful of commercial entities wanting such transfers and assignments to be made, regardless of any Free Software licence chosen, because they designate a privileged status in a project. Skepticism has even been shown towards the preference that projects transfer enforcement rights, if not outright ownership, to the FSF. Such skepticism is only healthy, even if one should probably give the FSF the benefit of the doubt as to the organisation’s intentions, in contrast to some arbitrary company who may change strategy from quarter to quarter.

The article also blames the GPLv3 or the AGPLv3 for the behaviour of “licence trolls”, but this is disingenuous. If Oracle offers a product with a choice of AGPLv3 or a special commercial licence, and if as a consequence those who want permissively licensed software for use in their proprietary products cannot get such software under permissive licences, it is the not the fault of any copyleft licence for merely existing: it is the fault (if this is even a matter of blame) of those releasing the software and framing the licence choices. Again, you do not need the FSF’s copyleft licences to exist to offer customers a choice of paying money or making compromises on how they offer their own work.

Of course, if people really cared about the state of projects that have switched licences, they would step up and provide a viable fork of the code starting from a point just before the licence change, but as can often be the case with permissively licensed software and a community of users dependent on a strong vendor, most people who claim to care are really looking for someone else to do the work so that they can continue to enjoy free gifts with as few obligations attached as possible. There are permissively licensed software projects with vibrant development communities, but remaining vibrant requires people to cooperate and for ownership to be distributed, if one really values community development and is not just looking for someone with money to provide free stuff. Addressing fundamental matters of project ownership and governance will get you much further than waving a magic wand and preferring permissive licensing, because you will be affected by those former things whichever way you decide to go with the latter.

Defining the New Normal

The article refers to BusyBox being “infamous” for having its licence enforced. That is a great way of framing reasonable behaviour in such a way as to suggest that people must be perverse for wanting to stand behind the terms under which, and mechanisms through which, they contributed their effort to a project. What is perverse is choosing a licence where such terms and mechanisms are defined and then waiving the obligation to defend it: it would not only be far easier to just choose another licence instead, but it would also be more honest to everyone wanting to use that project as well as everyone contributing to the project, too. The former group would have legal clarity and not the nods and winks of the project leadership; the latter group would know not to waste their time most likely helping people make proprietary software, if that is something they object to.

Indeed, when people contribute to a project it is on the basis of the social contract of the licence. When the licence is a copyleft licence, people will care whether others uphold their obligations. Some people say that they do not want the licence enforced on a project they contribute to. They have a right to express their own preference, but they cannot speak for everyone else who contributed under the explicit social contract that is the licence. Where even one person who has a contribution to a project sees their code used against the terms of the licence, that person has the right to demand that the situation be remedied. Denying individuals such rights because “they didn’t contribute very much” or “the majority don’t want to enforce the licence” (or even claiming that people are “holding the project to ransom”) sets a dangerous precedent and risks making the licence unenforceable for such projects as well as leaving the licence itself as a worthless document that has nothing to say about the culture or functioning of the project.

Some people wonder, “Why do you care what people do with your code? You have given it away.” Firstly, you have not given it away: you have shared it with people with the expectation that they will continue to share it. Copyleft licensing is all about the rights of the end-user, not about letting people do what they want with your code so that the end-user gets a binary dropped in their lap with no way of knowing what it is, what it does, or having any way of enjoying the rights given to the people who made that binary. As smartphone purchasers are discovering, binary-only shipments lead to unsustainable computing where devices are made obsolete not by fundamental changes in technology or physical wear and tear but by the unavailability of fixed, improved or maintained software that keep such devices viable.

Agreeing on the Licence

Disregarding the incompatibility between GPL versions, as discussed above, it appears more tempting to blame the GPL for situations of GPL-incompatibility than it does to blame other licences written after GPLv2 for causing such incompatibility in the first place. The article mentions that Sun deliberately made the CDDL incompatible with the GPL, presumably because they did not want people incorporating Solaris code into the GNU or Linux projects, thus maintaining that “competitive edge”. We all know how that worked out for Solaris: it can now be considered a legacy platform like AIX, HP-UX, and IRIX. Those who like to talk up GPL incompatibilities also like to overlook the fact that GPLv3 provides additional compatibility with other licences that had not been written in a GPLv2-compatible fashion.

The article mentions MoinMoin as being affected by a need for GPLv2 compatibility amongst its dependencies. In fact, MoinMoin is licensed under the GPLv2 or any later version, so those combining MoinMoin with various Apache Software Licence 2.0 licensed dependencies could distribute the result under GPLv3 or any later version. For those projects who stipulated GPLv2 only (against better advice) or even ones who just want the choice of upgrading the licence to GPLv3 or any later version, it is claimed that projects cannot change this largely because the provenance of the code is frequently uncertain, but the Mercurial project managed to track down contributors and relicensed to GPLv2 or any later version. It is a question of having the will and the discipline to achieve this. If you do not know who wrote your project’s code, not even permissive licences will protect you from claims of tainted code, should such claims ever arise.

The Fear Factor

Contrary to popular belief, all licences require someone to do (or not do) something. When people are not willing to go along with what a licence requires, we get into the territory of licence violation, unless people are taking the dishonest route of not upholding the licence and thus potentially betraying their project’s contributors. And when people fall foul of the licence, either inadvertently or through dishonesty, people want to know what might happen next.

It is therefore interesting that the article chooses to dignify claims of a GPL “death penalty”, given that such claims are largely made by people wanting to scare off others from Free Software, as was indeed shown when there may have been money and reputations to be made by engaging in punditry on the Google versus Oracle case. Not only have the actions taken to uphold the GPL been reasonable (contrary to insinuations about “infamous” reputations), but the licence revision process actually took such concerns seriously: version 3 of the GPL offers increased confidence in what the authors of the GPL family of licences actually meant. Obviously, by shunning GPLv3 and stipulating GPLv2 “only”, recipients of code licensed in such a way do not get the benefit of such increased clarity, but it is still likely that the fact that the licence authors sought to clarify such things may indeed weigh on interpretations of GPLv2, bringing some benefit in any case.

The Scapegoat

People like to invoke outrage by mentioning Richard Stallman’s name and some of the things he has said. Unfortunately for those people, Stallman has frequently been shown to be right. Interestingly, he has been right about issues that people probably did not consider to be of serious concern at the time they were raised, so that mentions of patents in GPLv2 not only proved to be far-sighted and useful in ensuring at least a workable level of protection for Free Software developers, but they also alerted Free Software communities, motivated people to resist patent expansionism, and predicted the unfortunate situation of endless, costly litigation that society currently suffers from. Such things are presumably an example of “specific usecases that were relevant at the time the license was written” according to the article, but if licence authors ignore such things, others may choose to consider them and claim some freedom in interpreting the licence on their behalf. In any case, should things like patents and buy-to-rent business models ever become extinct, a tidying up of the licence text for those who cannot bear to be reminded of them will surely do just fine.

Especially certain elements in the Python community seem to have a problem with Stallman and copyleft licensing, some blaming disagreements with, and the influence of, the FSF during the Python 1.6 licensing fiasco where the FSF rightly pointed out that references to venues (“Commonwealth of Virginia”) and having “click to accept” buttons in the licence text (with implicit acceptance through usage) would cause problems. Indeed, it is all very well lamenting that the interactions of licences with local law is not well understood, but one would think that where people have experience with such matters, others might choose to listen to such opinions.

It is a misrepresentation of Stallman’s position to claim that he wants strong copyright, as the article claims: in fact, he appears to want a strengthening of the right to share; copyleft is only a strategy to achieve this in a world with increasingly stronger copyright legislation. His objections to the Swedish Pirate Party’s proposals on five year copyright terms merely follow previous criticisms of additional instruments – in this case end-user licence agreements (EULAs) – that allow some parties to circumvent copyright restrictions on other people’s work whilst imposing additional restrictions – in previous cases, software patents – on their own and others’ works. Finding out what Stallman’s real position might require a bit of work, but it isn’t secret and in fact even advocates significantly reduced copyright terms, just as the Pirate Party advocates. If one is going to describe someone else’s position on a topic, it is best not to claim anything at all if the alternative is to just make stuff up instead.

The article ramps up the ridicule by claiming that the FSF itself claims that “cloud computing is the devil, cell phones are exclusively tracking devices”. Ridiculing those with legitimate concerns about technology and how it is used builds a culture of passive acceptance that plays into the hands of those who will exploit public apathy to do precisely what people labelled as “paranoid” or “radical” had warned everyone about. Recent events have demonstrated the dangers of such fashionable and conformist ridicule and the complacency it builds in society.

All Things to All People

Just as Richard Stallman cannot seemingly be all things to all people – being right about things like the threat of patents, for example, is just so annoying to those who cannot bring themselves to take such matters seriously – so the FSF and the GPL cannot be all things to all people, either. But then they are not claiming to be! The FSF recognises other software licences as Free Software and even recommends non-copyleft licences from time to time.

For those of us who prefer to uphold the rights of the end-user, so that they may exercise control over their computing environment and computing experience, the existence of the GPL and related copyleft licences is invaluable. Such licences may be complicated, but such complications are a product of a world in which various instruments are available to undermine the rights of the end-user. And defining a predictable framework through which such licences may be applied is one of the responsibilities that the FSF has taken upon itself to carry out.

Indeed, few other organisations have been able to offer what the FSF and closely associated organisations have provided over the years in terms of licensing and related expertise. Maybe such lists of complaints about the FSF or the GPL are a continuation of the well-established advertising tradition of attacking a well-known organisation to make another organisation or its products look good. The problem is that nobody really looks good as a result: people believe the bizarre insinuations of political propaganda and are less inclined to check what the facts say on whichever matter is being discussed.

People are more likely to make bad choices when they have only been able to make uninformed choices. The article seeks to inform people about some of the practicalities of licence compatibility but overemphasises sources with an axe to grind – and, in some cases, sources with rather dubious motivations – that are only likely to drive people away from reliable sources of information, filling the knowledge gap of the reader with innuendo from third parties instead. If the intention is to promote permissive licensing or merely licences that are shorter than the admittedly lengthy GPL, we would all be better served if those wishing to do so would stick to factual representations of both licensing practice and licence author intent.

And as for choosing a licence, some people have considered such matters before. Seeking to truly understand licences means having all the facts on the table, not just the ones one would like others to consider combined with random conjecture on the subject. I hope I have, at least, brought some of the missing facts to the table.