☆ Oslo Position

Stave Church DragonI’ll be speaking at GoOpen in Oslo on Tuesday (on the Grand Panel at 20:00) and Wednesday (the closing keynote). I’d love to meet with you if you’ll be in Oslo this week – find me at the event.

I was asked for a two-paragraph “position statement” so the panel moderator knew where I was coming from, so I sent this:

Open source is what the older concept of software freedom turns into when it happens on the world-wide web. The ever-increasing reach of the web has led to ever-increasing use of open source. That expansion has made it increasingly a business requirement passed to suppliers that software used in enterprises is open source in some way.  That in turn has made software vendors increasingly try their best to cheat, pretending that all it takes is an open source license to make something open source and that software freedom is irrelevant.

It doesn’t. Software freedom takes more than just a license. It takes a living community that’s open-by-rule, where every participant is free to pursue his or her own motivations for participating, doing so at his or her own cost. As the games companies play get more sophisticated, so the remedies communities create need to be more effective. Usually the best remedy is based on transparency, common sense and community empowerment. All the time open source is important, the game will be elevated, so I believe today we need benchmarks, best practices and inter-community co-operation if we’re to see software freedom build the open society I know it can.

That will be the background for my comments on the panel and for my keynote – what do you think? Comments below please – help me write my talk 😉

☂ Delicious Broken AGAIN

Thanks to everyone who has been alerting me to the fact that the same post has been showing up here over & over again. The problem is once again that Delicious has gone crazy and the auto-post task over there is stuck in a state where it constantly respawns. I have reported the problem but their tech support is sadly very thinly staffed (I do wonder if the guy who knows how to fix it even works there any more). If some other service offered blog postings I would switch in a heartbeat.

I have switched off Twitter/Facebook/Identi.ca notifications, but the only way to stop delicious posting is to change my WordPress password and I’m reluctant to do that too early as it breaks lots of other things, and anyway it stops the Yahoo people seeing there is really a problem they need to debug – clearly they didn’t last time it happened.

I just hope Stumbleupon or whoever are buying Delicious know what they are taking on.

☞ Fears Real And Imagined

  • Turns out that the electricity crisis triggered by the multiple tragedies in Japan is the result of never having fixed the standards duality in the power supply that arose from having two strong players in their market claiming their standard needed to be respected and instead of picking one, permitting the “two standards” oxymoron to survive.
  • Caterina (co-founder of Flickr) has an insightful take on the psychological game that social networking plays to get us addicted.
  • Here’s one of the reasons I’m not investing in Blu-Ray. In the name of addressing “piracy”, the movie industry is artificially crippling Blu-Ray so that its most loyal customers are repeatedly punished for buying it. Meanwhile, actual criminals who sell illegal copies of the movies are barely inconvenienced becuase they have access to the raw digital content. Digital restriction measures do nothing to protect the industry and simply harm customers.
  • I was kindly sent a copy of this report, and would warmly recommend it. The opening article, which is the subject of Cory’s item here, is full of discoveries (or at very least full of research-based support for the things I already believed).
  • Excellent (serious) visualisation of the amounts of radiation in the environment and their effects from xkcd. Full of discoveries, worth spending the time to study this.

♫ Unthankyou

You’d think given the number of places I track music and the number of things I have given permission to spam me with music information that something would have mentioned that The Unthanks had a new album coming out, or that they would be performing just up the road this Wednesday. But no, nothing did, so I don’t have an actual physical backup disk of the album yet (AKA a CD) nor will I likely make the gig because I’ll be on my way back from GoOpen in Oslo.

All the same, I have listened to it for as long as is possible today (before it was able to start to induce too much depression, as Unthanks albums tend to) and I must say I really like it. Assuming that’s the right word to use for an album that starts strongly in all senses with a funeral dirge for a child and goes down from there, making even Peter Gabriel’s “Up” seem cheery. Thanks to the wonder that is mflow, I’ve been able to stream the whole album without adverts and bathe in the glorious darkness which is Last.

If you want to do the same and are in the UK (the only place mflow works), first sign up from this link (which will give both you and me £1 of credit to spend) and then go listen on this link. Since I like to have a backup of my MP3s, I tend to buy the CD if it’s not too much more than the digital album; hopefully it’s winging its way from Amazon already (if you’re in the US you’ll need to pre-order as it’s not released yet).

Ever more self-assured and accomplished, this is an album of raw beauty, delivering uniquely modern yet still traditional folk music with both lyrical and melodic clarity. It also has a variety of pace and tonal texture that means it makes good, varied listening – albeit without any clog-dance percussion this time. On early listening I especially like the two longer tracks – Last and Close The Coalhouse Door.

The title track Last explores the loneliness of singleness, and is written by Rachel’s partner Adrian McNally. Coalhouse Door reflects on the human cost of mining and considers coal as clots of dried blood. Holy Moly sums it up well:

This is a truly miserable record; a three-hankie affair. Listening to ‘Last’ for the first time in the less than ideal environment of Glasgow airport we snivelled at the title track with its desolate future view and plea for human interaction, bit our lip throughout the traditional lament ‘My Laddie Sits Ower Late Up’ and lost it completely during their extraordinary reading of Alex Glasgow‘s ‘Close The Coalhouse Door’ (written about the death toll of North East miners, and the Aberfan disaster). Rarely is the North depicted so sadly and yet so beautifully.

If you too are a fan of “three-hankie folk” then this is a must-try. Just make sure you have cleared away everything sharp and grabbed the tissues first.

☞ Rejection

  • This Privacy International report covers a few of the reasons citizens in surveilled society should avoid Skype. I avoid it for these reasons and more, including:

    • It’s 100% closed – design, interfaces, source – so all four software freedoms are absent
    • I’ve no idea who is tapping it, voice or text
    • It is not possible to add in-stream protection like OTR to fix that
    • Clients are only available where Skype chooses to make them available so the full range of tools is not available to us
    • It’s turning into adware
    • Its use makes users invest less in their own VoIP – lazy loss of freedom by willing slaves
    • It can’t be integrated in a general purpose client effectively so it’s another (huge) process to load
  • There was a time this sort of ignorant, rigged “research” would have been excusable. That time is well past, and the people involved should be ashamed.
  • Pity there’s no option for gift subscriptions. Check out the blog with all the editorial replies.

☆ The Threat Of Parallel Filing

When we consider software patents, it’s easy to believe they are something outside the open source communities. Mentally, many of us model them as a weapon belonging to “patent trolls” – companies who don’t make products in the area of the patents they own (they may have other business interests they are funding) but instead create their income by shaking down businesses who unwittingly stray into their patent minefields.

But I suggest that many of the patents these “non-practicising entities” (as they are known to lawyers) use actually come directly from the development of software and potentially open source software. They start life in “friendly” hands, but there’s every chance they will eventually be used in harmful ways. Just look at the proposed sale of Novell’s patent portfolio to CPTN to get the idea how. Right now the US Department of Justice seems to agree it’s a problem and may even intervene in the sale.

Parallel Filing

In the corporations where I have worked, programmers have been incented along with other engineers to constantly watch their work for ideas that could be encapsulated in a patent. This “parallel filing” – developers doing work and filing patents on their innovations at the same time – results in the creation of a ring-fence around each activity in which the engineers participate.

The fact is that all US corporations and many EU corporations are “parallel filing” as they engage in software development. That includes corporations who are investing heavily in open source communities. What open source needs is not just the donation of individual patents. While that is a fine gesture of solidarity, it is sadly little more as the patents themselves break the social contract by not actually offering a pattern developers can use to re-apply the patented idea.

There’s one other place that software patents come from, and it’s an important one. Startup companies get advised by venture capital firms and the lawyers that profit from them to gather a few software patents, “so you have some valuable assets” and “so you can protect yourself”. This strong guidance is still given even if the startup is working with open source (ours was, for example). Exactly how these patents can be used to protect the startup against patent trolls or large competitors is never explained.

Since most startups exist to be acquired, and since most actually go bust before that happens, their software patents can then get bought – at fire-sale prices – by patent trolls, perhaps assisted by the same people who recommend the patents be created. The few that survive to be acquired are sold along with their patents to companies whose leadership are most unlikely to share their founders’ ethical stance. Thus patents filed in parallel with development by startups are pretty likely to be used against the startups’ communities eventually.

Social Contract

While the concept is older, the modern idea of patents came from an age of mass production. Innovation was running free during the industrial revolution. Patents expressed an agreement in society to trade a temporary monopoly on an invention to its inventor for the description of the invention so that others could build on it and increase the common good. They were a ‘social contract’, with rights and obligations both on the inventor and on society at large. Without patents, inventors would obfuscate their inventions so as to evade counterfeiters, and consequently the know-how they created would be lost to future generations.

The timescales envisioned by the patent system were predicated on physical inventions requiring manufacturing investment. Pure ideas – business methods, philosophies, strategies for solving problems – were never subject to the same approach. The lack of manufacturing investment required for exploitation combined with the adequacy of copyright protection meant there was no useful social contract to be established for pure ideas.

The same applies to software. Parallel-filed software patents breach the social contract implied by the patent system. Unlike other patents, software patents do not form a useful body of searchable knowledge as they do not contain within the patent the sort of ‘sketch’ that another technician would need. Programmers need sample code, and software patents never contain a reference implementation. Instead, software patents are about protection and control.

A software patent does not free me to innovate; it just provides a constraint to my thinking. What a developer needs is the certainty that any innovation they create is safe from hostile action. Under present law that’s not achievable as an absolute, but I do believe we can devise ways to be protected from patents arising from our own communities.

Transition Point

We’re at a transition point for society. We have moved from the age of mass production to the age of mass connection. More and more invention is happening in the grey area beyond the manufactured. As Lessig pointed out in “Free Culture”, this shift has stretched the laws governing creativity to their limits. As we reconsider patents, we must consider what they are and more importantly we must revisit the social contract on which they are based. Just trying to force fit the old approach of patents to the new world of participation isn’t working.

What open source needs is instead a declaration by participants in open source communities that all the patents they parallel-filed during the development process are granted with the contribution of the code. The grant needs to be (at least initially) a blanket, unenumerated grant to the community receiving the contribution so that developers know they are safe from any action by that participant. The best place to get this grant is either in the community governance or in the open source license itself.

Making It Stick

Getting those declarations is the most pressing need of the open source meta-community today, and modern open source licenses like the Apache license generally achieve it. But the really big challenge is making the protection stick with the patents through things like the Novell-CPTN transition.

I remain to be convinced that is possible at present, and it needs urgent research and experimentation. Who by? I suggest the corporations benefitting from open source need to be the ones funding that research. We can’t expect corporations to stop parallel filing until the patent system is fixed. They have a duty to their shareholders to, at a minimum, protect themselves in the dog-eat-dog world of corporate competition. But we can expect them to share the burden of protection with the communities in which they participate. So which of the big-legal-budget corporations that claim to love open source will step up to the challenge?

☞ Missing Balance

  • This repeated lack of balance and failure to consider the overall cultural and technical picture of the change the Internet is catalysing is just so bad. Where is the voice speaking up for culture, youth and the individual? Another betrayal of “Yes We Can”.
  • As we expand to support more customers and contribute more to the OpenAM and OpenDJ projects, we need more technical staff. Take a look if you’re based in the Portland OR/Vancouver WA area.

☝ OSI Governance Landmark

OSI Board 2010-11You’ll recall about this time last year I was honoured to join the OSI Board and expressed hopes OSI could move towards representative governance. Well, I spent the weekend in San Francisco at an OSI Board face-to-face meeting (kindly hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation) where we finally agreed to move towards representative governance and also elected a stellar group of new Directors.

Read about it on ComputerWorldUK or the OSI Board Blog.

☞ Assorted Links

  • This looks like an excellent initiative to create a decentralised voice-over-Internet service. Timely and necessary.
  • Of all the photos around the web showing the consequences of the disasters in Japan, none has brought the scale of the destruction home more clearly than these interactive aerial before-and-after photos.
  • Gratifying to see OW2 completing a score card. Once I’ve had the chance to discuss this with them I’ll post my own evaluation based on their data.

☞ The Main Stream

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