There is no doubt that much of what is going on in legislative systems
worldwide is hostile to both free software and the larger principles of
fair use of ideas and copyrighted works. Laws like the DMCA or the
ban the writing of programs which provide "unauthorized"
access to legitimately purchased materials. Proposed laws like the CBDTPA
(seen defined as "Consume, But Don't Try Programming Anything") could
outlaw broad classes of free software outright. There is clearly cause to
worry. But what should we do
about these threats?
Columnist Dan Gillmor tells us
to get involved and pressure government for better laws:
But I'm convinced that we can preserve our rights, if we can only
persuade Congress that they're worth preserving. There's little or
no constituency for fair use and other rights, partly because
lawmakers are only hearing one side. But if the community of
readers, listeners, viewers, scholars, researchers and others who
don't ``own'' copyrights doesn't at least challenge the terms of
the debate, it will surely lose.
Mr. Gillmor tells us that we need to "reeducate" Congress and press
technology companies to be more assertive about the rights and needs of its
customers, rather than those of big media. With enough political pressure,
our rights can be preserved.
Before going off to pressure Congress (or Parliament, or whatever), though,
it is worth taking a look at another view. Declan McCullagh, who has
covered Congress and technology for years, has recently posted a column questioning
the value of the political path:
Here's the bitter truth: These efforts are mostly a waste of
time. Sure, they may make you feel better, but they're not the way
His suggestion, instead, is to take the classic cypherpunk approach: write
Put another way, who made a bigger difference: Yet another
letter-scribbling activist or Phil Zimmermann, who wrote the
Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption software? How about Shawn
Fanning, the man who created Napster? Or the veterans of the
Internet Engineering Task Force, which oversees the fundamental
protocols of the Internet?
He has a point: had Phillip Zimmermann not written PGP when he did, the
battle for the right to use strong encryption may well have been lost a
In general, the wide diffusion of technology makes it harder to outlaw or
control that technology. In 1990, it might just have been possible to pass
a CBDTPA-like law which would have made the distribution of free operating
systems impossible. In 2002, Linux and *BSD are everywhere, serving many
critical functions; outlawing them is not a practical possiblity. Hackers
should, indeed, be creating and distributing code. Getting that code out
where it can not be recalled is an important activity for the defense of
But wouldn't it be a nicer world if free software hackers did not need to
fear arrest and incarceration for releasing the wrong code? Wouldn't it be
better if copyright law were to swing back toward the longstanding values
of fair use, first sale, and compromise between control and the free
exchange of ideas? To claim that the only worthwhile work is writing code
is to see the future as a sort of guerilla war against an entrenched
copyright regime. This does not sound like a fun future, and it should not
be seen as inevitable.
Sustained political effort can yield results. But success requires
engaging and interest and support of a large number of people.
Governmental representatives can easily ignore the noise from a small group
of concerned programmers; they need to hear from a wider constituency
before they will pay attention. Somehow we need to get Aunt Tillie worried
about copyright law. That is going to be a difficult task, but it's
an important one.
Comments (10 posted)
One example of engagement with government is the Digital
Software Security Act
(DSSA), which is proposed for enactment in the
state of California. This bill is strongly supported by Red Hat, to the
point that CTO Michael Tiemann is leading
to the San Francisco city hall on August 15. The law may
look good at a first glance, but it is not clear that this is really the
best way to promote the free software cause.
The DSSA is strict and unambiguous in its requirements. If a given
software package does not come with source, and the ability to modify and
redistribute that source, the state of California would not be able to buy
it. If no suitable open source package exists for, say, the management of
mineral rights or the operation of automated tollbooths, then state would
simply have to do without. Chances are, some of the operations of the
state of California would be adversely affected by this law.
The proposed law is extreme, and its chances of passage are minimal. Which
is just as well. Imagine the backlash that would result once people
figured out that, since nobody has gotten around to creating a SourceForge
project for welfare case management, tracking of health insurance
complaints, or the secure creation of drivers licenses, the state would no
longer be able to perform those functions. This law would not last long.
More generally, free software is supposed to be about choices and
freedom. That includes the freedom to choose software that does not
necessarily meet the Open Source Definition. There are situations where a
mandate of openness makes sense for governments: file formats for the
storage of public data and electronic voting software come readily to mind.
It is certainly in the interests of governments - and the governed - to use
free software in situations where that software can do the job. But a
heavy-handed law that requires the use of free software in all situations -
even where such software does not exist - is excessive and
counterproductive. World Domination is best achieved through better
software and respect for freedom, not by legislative fiat.
Comments (8 posted)
The LinuxWorld Conference & Expo is happening without LWN's presence
this year - but they seem to be getting along just fine without us. Our
coverage is thus less that it might other wise be. Thanks to Russell
Pavlicek, we do have reports from the first
days at the event.
Beyond that, there are a few things of interest that have come out of this
LinuxWorld iteration, including:
- The Free Standards Group has announced
that three distributors (MandrakeSoft, Red Hat, and SuSE) have won
"LSB-compliant" certification for their distributions. Actual
implementation by the distributors was an important part of the whole
Linux Standard Base process, so this is good news.
- Sun has jumped into the business of selling commodity PCs with Linux
installed. This has proved to be a difficult living for many, but
it's possible that Sun's experience will be different.
- Dell's announcements show clearly where that company thinks money is
to be made with Linux: large clusters and migration from proprietary
- By the end of September, we're told, we'll see the Xandros 1.0
and UnitedLinux beta releases.
- Oracle has joined the GPL community by releasing its "cluster
filesystem" for Linux. The company seems to think that the Linux
platform is important enough to be worth improving.
See this week's Linux in Business page for
more LinuxWorld press releases than you would ever really want to see. The
Linux business world has changed, but LinuxWorld still seems to be its
Comments (none posted)
Among the many announcements from LinuxWorld this week is this one
from VA Software stating that the SourceForge software would be adapted to
work with a number of proprietary IBM products, including the DB2 database
manager and WebSphere. VA and IBM will also cooperate in the marketing of
each other's products. Oh, and, incidentally, OSDN (owned by VA) has announced
will be converted
over to run DB2 exclusively.
This arrangement does not lack its good features. SourceForge becomes more
interoperable and gains a new marketing channel. No details have been
released, of course, but it is reasonable to expect that IBM will help
support SourceForge.net's continued existence as part of this deal. Given
the obvious cost of running a facility like SourceForge and the number of
free software projects which depend on it, this is good news for the free
The fact remains, however, that SourceForge is moving steadily away from
free software. The site itself has not been pure free software for some
time, and is now becoming a showcase for IBM's proprietary applications.
There has not been a release of the SourceForge site code - the free part -
since November, 2001. References to "open source" are most rare on the VA
Software web site. Even the VA Software products
FAQ shows an interesting emphasis:
Q: What platform (hardware/software) does SourceForge run on?
SourceForge runs on SPARC based Solaris servers using Solaris
version 8 10/01 and higher. SourceForge also runs on Red Hat Linux
versions 7.1 and higher on Intel processor-based platforms.
"Also runs" is better than nothing...
Almost exactly one year ago, Eric Raymond posted a message
on how SourceForge wasn't really going proprietary:
So the real news here is that VA is still about open source -- if I
didn't believe that, I'd be off their board of directors so fast it
would make your head spin. We're just being pragmatic about how we
sell the idea. Change peoples' behavior first, show them the
advantages in doing so, and their hearts and minds will follow.
Given that, it is interesting to note that Mr. Raymond's name has been
quietly dropped from VA's Board of Directors
We are, thus, in a position where a large portion of the free software
community's work is hosted on a site owned by a company that no longer sees
free software as part of its mission. The concentration of projects onto a
single site (any single site) has been a cause of concern for some
time; now it makes the community's position look truly precarious.
SourceForge is still useful to VA as a demonstration of the scale on which
its software can work. But it's an expensive advertisement which is
increasingly being turned to the interests of those who are paying the
bills. SourceForge remains a valuable contribution to the free software
community, as it has been for years. But the need for alternatives (beyond
Savannah and Berios, which are a good start)
is more urgent than ever.
Comments (7 posted)
There is relatively little to report on the status of LWN since last week -
despite the fact that we have been as busy as ever. Here's what's going
- Our disagreement with our credit card clearing company is heading
toward resolution - slowly. A small portion of the money given as
donations (and advertising payments) to LWN has found its way into our
bank account; we're working on getting the rest. Meanwhile, however,
we lack the ability to accept credit card payments - something we
have to fix before subscriptions can start.
- Implementation of site code for the handling of subscriptions is
proceeding - slowly. When writing code that does things like charge
money to credit cards, it's best not to be in too much of a hurry.
Thanks yet again for your support. We'll do our best to keep you informed
as things happen.
Comments (5 posted)
Page editor: Jonathan Corbet
Inside this week's LWN.net Weekly Edition
- Security: USENIX security 2002 wrap up; Chosen-Ciphertext Attacks against PGP;Bug in SunRPC-derived XDR libraries
- Kernel: Improving Posix thread support; memory management patents; NFSv4
- Distributions: icepack linux; Getting started with uClinux; Xandros nears first release
- Development: Rosegarden-4 v0.2.0
Ogg Traffic, Matchbox window manager, HP OfficeJet driver 0.90,
LPRng-3.8.15, mnoGoSearch 1.63, Gnome 2.0.1 Desktop RC1,
Wine 20020804, Gnumeric 1.1.7, GnomeICU 0.99a1, Jext 3.1.
- Commerce: OSDL Announces Major Achievements for Data Center and Carrier Grade Linux; Red Hat Linux Advanced Server for AMD's Hammer processor
- Press: Internet radio's future, White-Hat Crimes, Dell partners with Red Hat,
Sap DB under the LGPL, Linux World coverage, open source for astronomy,
Xbox boots Linux.
- Announcements: Audacity Tutorial, Linus Around the World, Linux 11th Anniversary Picnic,
CodeCon 2003 CFP, Usenix 2003 CFP, Samba Survey.
- Letters: LWN and the "pioneer spirit"; CBDTPA