31 March 2010

Writing (Yet Again) to my MP

I must be a glutton for punishment: I've written yet another letter to my MP about the Digital Economy Bill (not that he bothered replying to the last one...):

I wrote to you a little while back in connection with the Digital Economy Bill. I don't intend to rehearse all the arguments I made there; I'd just like to point out that this is an incredibly important bill that will affect the future of this country greatly. As such, surely it is important to get it right?

If, as may be the case, time is simply too short to debate it properly, then it should be dropped now and picked up after the General Election. If the bill is not scrutinised fully, there is a strong possibility of a seriously-flawed piece of legislation reaching the statute books with all kinds of unforeseen and highly detrimental effects for the country, both in economic and social terms.

I would therefore urge you to press ministers for a full debate on the Bill, perhaps by signing this Early Day Motion (EDM 1223):

“That this House believes that the Digital Economy Bill [Lords] is too important to be taken further in the last days of a dying Parliament; and considers that a bill with so many repercussions for consumers, civil liberties, freedom of information and access to the internet should be debated and properly scrutinised at length and in detail, with a full opportunity for public discussion and representation in a new Parliament after the general election and not rushed through in the few days that remain in this Parliament.”

At a time when the public's confidence in politicians is at an all-time low, surely the worst thing that could be done is rushing through legislation that has been criticised by every kind of expert, including those in the realms of technology, law, consumer affairs and human rights to name but a few.

30 March 2010

Italian Court OKs Preference for Open Source

Here's a big win for open source: the Italian Constitutional Court has approved a law in Piedmont giving preference to open source, ruling that it is not anti-competitive:

Just over a year ago, the Piedmont Regional Council passed a law which states: "... the Region, in the process of choosing computer programs to acquire, prefers free software and programs whose source code can be inspected by the licensee" (Article 6, paragraph 2).

This choice was welcomed with enthusiasm by Free Software supporters and civil society, while the Presidency of the Italian Council of Minister contested this law, by referring to the Constitutional Court in order to declare it unlawful.

On March the 23rd, 2010, the Court ruled that the preference for Free Software is legitimate and complies with the principle of freedom of competition.

The reasoning given by the Constitutional Court is interesting:

The Court points out: "It is not understandable how the the choice of a Public institution with regard to a feature, and not a product ... can be deemed as a breach of antitrust law”. Furthermore, the Court clarifies that “The concepts of Free Software and software whose code can be inspected do not refer to a particular technology, brand or product, but they rather express a legal feature".

As the Italian Associaation for Free Software notes:
In short, according to the Court, favoring Free Software does not infringe freedom of competition, since software freedom is a general legal feature, and not a technological aspect connected to a specific product or brand. This ruling demonstrates the weakness of the arguments of those who, until now, have opposed the adoption of rules aimed at promoting and favoring Free Software arguing that they conflict with the principle of "technological neutrality".

This is an important result, and not just for Italy: it establishes a line of reasoning that could be applied in other jurisdictions.

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29 March 2010

Open Source and Open Standards under Threat in Europe

Open source is under attack in Europe. Not openly or obviously, but in the background, behind closed doors. The battleground is the imminent Digital Agenda for Europe, due to be unveiled by the European Commission in a month's time, and which defines the overall framework for Europe's digital policy. According to people with good contacts to the politicians and bureaucrats drawing up the Agenda, Microsoft is lobbying hard to ensure that open standards and open source are excluded from that policy - and is on the brink of succeeding in that aim.

We need to get as many people as possible writing to the key Commissioners *now* if we are to stop them. Details of who to write to are given below. To help you frame things, here's some background on what's at stake.

On Open Enterprise blog.

26 March 2010

The Battle for Scholarly Publishing's Soul

Before Peter Suber became Mr Open Access, he was a philosopher by trade. This is evident in the long, thoughtful essays he writes for the SPARC Open Access Newsletter, which help console us for his absence these days from the world of blogging.

Here's the latest of them, entitled "Open access, markets, and missions". It asks some deep questions about what kind of scholarly publishing we should strive for: market oriented or mission oriented? As he observes:

Profit maximizing limits access to knowledge, by limiting it to paying customers. If anyone thinks this is just a side-effect of today's market incentives, then we can put the situation differently: Profit maximizing doesn't always limit access to knowledge, but is always ready to do so if it pays better. This proposition has a darker corollary: Profit maximizing doesn't always favor untruth, but is always ready to do so if it would pay better. It's hard to find another explanation for the fake journals Elsevier made for Merck and the dishonest lobbying campaigns against OA policies. (Remember "Public access equals government censorship"? "If the other side is on the defensive, it doesn't matter if they can discredit your statements"?)

He concludes:

Instead of hypnotically granting the primacy of markets in all sectors, as if there were no exceptions, we should remember that many organizations compromise profits or relinquish revenues in order to foster their missions, and that we all benefit from their dedication. Which institutions and sectors ought to do so, and how should we protect and support them to pursue their missions? Instead of smothering these questions for offending the religion of markets, we should open them for wider discussion. Should scholarly publishing, with all of its mixed incentives and hard choices, migrate closer to market-oriented end of the spectrum or to the mission-oriented end of the spectrum? For me the answer depends on a prior question. Do we want scholarly publishing to serve a certain function in the community?

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Walk Like a Geek? Talk Like a Geek? Vote Geek

As you may have noticed, there's some kind of political thingy happening in a few weeks' time. Too often, the geek vote is simply ignored amid all the exictement. As readers of this blog will appreciate, that's wrong at many levels: there are lots of us and we know what we're talking about when it comes to technology (unlike most politicians).

Here's a fine initiative that wants to do something about that sad state of affairs. Called “Vote Geek”, it demands “Technocracy not Idiocracy”:

Welcome to Vote Geek, our mission is to find out where the candidates in the forthcoming UK General Election stand on issues of technology.

The website depends on your participation, we need you to write to your candidates and ask them what their views are on the issues that matter to you.

First find your constituency using the search or list of counties to the right. We are gathering information on the standing candidates and how to contact them, if it is incomplete or wrong then please leave a comment and it will be corrected. You can see what other people have written to the candidates and you can leave copies of letters you have written to them, plus any responses you get back.

Although this website is run by a bunch of Free and Open Source Software enthusiasts it is not here to tell you what to think, it is here to find out what the candidates think. If you think the Digital Economy Bill is a good thing for you then please do write to your candidates asking for their support and post the responses here. Which ever way they respond would be just as interesting as a response to someone with a negative opinion. It would of course be very interesting if a candidate’s views changed depending on how the question was asked!
This is a really great move, and the people behind it are to be commended for being both civic-minded and geeky. I urge everyone to pose some suitably burning questions relating to technology to their candidates and to post the results to this site. Speaking from personal experience, I know that these letters do have an impact, if only because they get candidates say something about technology, which requires at least some thought by them and/or their handlers. If enough of us do it, it will bring home to future MPs that technology is important and that geek power shouldn't be overlooked.

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The King of the Trolls Strikes Gold

Well, this is rather droll. The other day I was writing about the patent troll to end all trolls, Intellectual Ventures. And now we have this:

Patent #7,679,604 — “Method and apparatus for controlling a computer system” — the broad motion-control patent I’ve been writing about all week, has passed through a number of hands over the years. First assigned to ArrayComm in 2006, it was subsequently handed over to Durham Logistics, a limited liability company which is itself managed by another obscure Las Vegas LLC called Memscom. But there’s one more company at the end of that oblique line of ownership: Intellectual Ventures, an “invention capital firm” or patent troll, depending on your views on innovation and intellectual property.

On Open Enterprise blog.

25 March 2010

Cameron as Future Avatar of Film Industry

For some months now, I've been touting "Avatar" as a good example of how the film industry should be concentrating on enhancing the experience of watching films *in the cinema* - something that no copied DVD can reproduce - thus making unauthorised copies pretty much into marketing devices that encourage people to go to the cinema for the full experience.

It seems that one person who gets this is James Cameron himself:

He said the music industry made a critical mistake by trying to stop piracy instead of innovating to give consumers new experiences that the industry could use to generate more money.

"The music industry saw it coming, they tried to stop it, and they got rolled over," he said. "Then they started suing everybody. And now it is what it is."

Instead, Cameron said he has tried to innovate to give movie goers a reason to go to theater. And in creating a rich, "reinvigorated cinema experience," Cameron said he discovered that people are willing to pay money to experience the same content in different ways. Not only are they willing to pay $10 or more to see Avatar on the big screen in 3D, but they also will pay to own the DVD and to take it with them on their phone or portable device.

"People are discriminating about the experience," he said. "They want to own it, have it on a iPhone when they want it, and they want the social experience of going to the cinema. These are really different experiences. And I think they can all co-exist in the same eco-system."

Cameron said the fact that people are still going to the theater to see Avatar now nearly four months after it was released supports his conclusion. He said he has had several discussions with the movie studio trying to figure out when to release the DVD of the movie. Typically DVD's are released after the film has left movie theaters. But he said since people are still going to see the movie in the theater, they decided to release the DVD next month with the movie still playing in some cinemas. The movie will also be available soon on iTunes.

What a perfect summary of what can be done, and what should be done. Let's hope Cameron is the future of cinema - at least in this respect.

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Digg for Democracy

Digg's pretty established these days as a way of crowd-sourcing newsgathering. How about applying the same idea to politics?

Lots of sites enable debate and voting over issues, but with Digital Democracy the site members have absolute authority over identifying, prioritising and voting on the issues. What's more, Digital Democracy has the power to enable participation of every British citizen in the process of democratic decision making.

Bit quiet at the moment,: perhaps someone should submit it to Digg...

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File-sharing and the War on the Internet

Yesterday I attended the Counter Conference:

The COUNTER Project (www.counter2010.org), funded under Framework 7 of the EU SSHRC Programme, is a two year multidisciplinary project exploring the economic, legal, consumer and cultural dynamics of counterfeiting, piracy and filesharing. It aims to generate new knowledge which will contribute towards the development of evidence-based policy making at the European, national and international level. The project emphasises that effectively addressing this complex area requires a variety of strategic multistakeholder actions which recognise the importance of understanding and engaging with the psychological, social and cultural dynamics of consumer behaviour.

On Open Enterprise blog.

The Indispensable Background Twitter?

Nice observation:

The other remarkable thing that happened at the conference took place during the three-strikes session. This was a parallel session held in a very small, hot and crowded room with no more than 20 attendees. The panel included several twitterers, and the audience was clearly following what promised to be an interesting discussion. The end result pretty much exemplified to me why Twitter has become a must-have at conferences. As this was an emotionally-charged topic, the tweets emanating from the room were soon picked up by various other users, so much so that at some point we had journalists and even a Member of Parliament making comments about what was being said. What transpired in the little room spawned claims and counter-claims elsewhere, and even led to the MP asking questions via Twitter.

I might be guilty of overstating the importance of the technology, but I truly think that there is something important happening with social media. Opening discussion to the wider public is not a bad thing.

As it happens, I was there too. Since I wasn't twittering, I missed much of this, but a look at the Twitter stream afterwards showed just how much was going on. Which suggests, perhaps, that even people who were taking part needed to be on Twitter in order to take part fully. Exciting stuff.

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Urgent: Please Write to your MEPs in Next Hour

There's a big “plenary vote” in the European Parliament at 11.30 local time (10.30 UK time). This is great opportunity for MEPs to sign the Written Declaration 12 on ACTA, which basically says the European Parliament is very unhappy with ACTA.

If you can, please write a short note to your MEPs asking them to support that declaration *now*. Here's what I've written:

I believe that there is a plenary vote today: I am writing to ask you to take that opportunity to sign the Written Declaration 12 on ACTA, which I feel is an important document that deserves your support for the sake of the European electorate and European democracy.

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23 March 2010

Big ACTA Leak: Full Consolidated Text

La Quadrature du Net has obtained another ACTA document - and it's a biggie, but at the moment only a 56-page PDF. You can help convert it into text.

But what's really striking to me, as someone who has been covering this area for 18 months now, is how the rate of leaks is increasing: the more leaks there are, the more we get. It's a bit like those slow-motion scenes in films where the dam begins to break slowly, and then more and more cracks appear until finally - transparency.

So, let's keep those leaks coming, please.

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Free Software's Secret Patent Weapon

Yesterday I was warning about the threat that the super-troll Intellectual Ventures represents. To provide some balance, here's a surprisingly upbeat piece from Samba creator Andrew Tridgell on how to read software patents. It's incredibly well done, and I recommend it to everyone. But what really struck me was the concluding section that suggested that free software actually has a secret weapon when it comes to software patents: its community.

On Open Enterprise blog.

22 March 2010

Free Software's Second Era: The Rise and Fall of MySQL

If the first era of free software was about the creation of the fully-rounded GNU/Linux operating system, the second saw a generation of key enterprise applications being written to run on that foundation. Things got moving with the emergence and rapid adoption of the LAMP stack – a term coined in 1998 - a key part of which was (obviously) MySQL (the “M”).

On The H Open.

What Was Gordon Brown Thinking this Morning?

It's a measure of how far digital technology has entered our lives that Gordon Brown should get up at some ungodly hour this morning in order to give a major speech devoted entirely to “Building Britain’s Digital Future”. Even more extraordinary is that it includes passages like this:

On Open Enterprise blog.

Saint Tim Berners-Lee

Here's a fine piece of hagiography, with a really excellent conclusion that touches on those diabolical software patents:

The founders of Google and Microsoft have made their fortunes out of the world wide web, as have numerous other dot-com entrepreneurs. Sir Tim, though, has never cashed in on his brilliant idea. He doesn’t have a yacht or a mansion or a private jet. But neither does he have any regrets about his lack of wealth.

“I couldn’t have made a fortune even if I’d wanted to,” he says. “If I’d patented my idea and tried to make money, other people would have just set up rival networks and it wouldn’t have worked. The web only happened because everyone pulled together.”

Beatific Berners-Lee.

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Beware the King of the Trolls

If you haven't heard of Intellectual Ventures, you will do. Set up by ex-Microsoftie Nathan Myhrvold, with investments from Microsoft among others, it is basically a patenting machine – filing and buying them in huge quantities. Note that it doesn't actually *use* these patents – except to threaten people with. In other words, Intellectual Ventures is a patent troll – or, rather the King of the Patent Trolls.

On Open Enterprise blog.

21 March 2010

Open Source's (Not-so-)Secret Sauce: Modularity

Why does open source succeed? Apart, that is, from the fact that it is created by huge numbers of amazingly clever and generous people? Or, put another way, what is a key ingredient that must be present for the open source methodology to be applicable to other spheres?


If the stuff to hand isn't modular, you can't really share, because your stuff isn't compatible with other people's stuff. If it isn't modular, you can't share out tasks and scale. If you can't share out tasks, you can't have people working independently, at their own pace and in their own way, which means the project isn't really open. If it isn't modular, you can't swap in some new elements while leaving everything else untouched, which means no "release early, release often", no experimentation, no rapid evolution. Modularity is indispensable.

I think that's why open source hardware has singularly failed to take off. It's difficult to make bunches of atoms modular in the way that bunches of bits are (at least until we have general 3D printers, in which case we're done...)

But could there be a way of introducing that modularity at a higher level so as to enjoy the benefits outlined above? I do believe there is, and with hindsight, it was pretty obvious (er, so why didn't I think of it?). It's called OpenStructures:

The OS (OpenStructures) project explores the possibility of a modular construction model where everyone designs for everyone on the basis of one shared geometrical grid. It initiates a kind of collaborative Meccano to which everybody can contribute parts, components and structures.

As you can see, the clever people behind this project have the magic word "modular" in there. Specifically, they have devised a very simple grid system that ensures that things fit together, even when they're made by different people at different times and for different purposes. Significantly, the grid is based on binary multiples and subdivisions:

If you choose to apply the OS grid for the dimensions of a part, at least one of the measurements of this part (length, wideness and thickness or height) should correspond to either 0,125cm / 0,25cm / 0,5cm / 1cm / 2cm and multiples of 2cm in order to be compatible with other parts. (see part examples)

What's really impressive about this project is not just this insight into the modularity of elements, but the completeness of the vision that results. For example, there is an explicit hierarchy of elements, starting from OS Parts, which combine to form OS Components, from which are made OS Structures, and finally OS Superstructures.

It's an amazing vision, and I think it could have a major impact on the world of open source hardware, at least of this particular construction-set type. If you want to see some of the exciting objects that have already been created, don't miss the fab photos on the project's blog. (Via @opensourcerer.)

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To: EC's Directorate General for Trade

Without much fanfare, the European Commission has arranged an "ACTA Stakeholders’ Consultation Meeting". Of course, the big problem is that it's in Brussels, and few of us can afford to take a day off work to attend - unless we are professional lobbyists, of course, who get *paid* huge sums to attend.

However, it is still possible to make some comments on ACTA, since

Those unable to participate in the meeting and/or wishing to present their positions in writing may send their comments to TRADE-ACTA-MEETING@ec.europa.eu , no later than 22 March 2010.

So if you have a few minutes to spare this afternoon, I urge you to drop the EC's Directorate General for Trade a short note to let them know what you think. Here's mine:

Unfortunately, I won't be able to attend the ACTA Stakeholders’ Consultation Meeting; but I shouldn't need to. If the Internet has taught us anything, it is that such processes can – and should – be opened up to all using this wonderful democratising tool. By resorting to such traditional meetings, the European Commission makes it difficult for ordinary people with jobs (to say nothing of those who are unemployed) from attending and thus voicing their opinions. Instead, it will be the usual well-funded lobbyists who turn up and pack the meeting, crowding out the few who represent the hundreds of millions of ordinary EU citizens.

So my comment really comes down to this: we need full transparency for the ACTA negotiations, with all of the drafts released as and when they are modified, along with all other related documents, so that all of us can participate in this crucially important process. This is not some ancillary facet that can be tacked later, but is absolutely central. If other partners won't agree to transparency, then the EU should simply refuse to negotiate further, since there is no reason why such drafts should not be open for all to discuss – unless, of course, there is something in them that certain participants want hidden until the negotiations have been concluded and can be presented as a fait accompli.

ACTA negotiations without transparency are simply a continuation of the bad old days of closed-door meetings of cosy insider groups to the detriment of ordinary citizens. If the EU is truly to represent the citizens of Europe, it must definitively turn its back on that unrepresentative system, and place openness and transparency at the heart of everything it does.

If it does not, voters' disenchantment with politics will grow, and the already-gaping chasm between the politicians and the people will widen, until our nominal representatives find themselves increasingly alienated from the electorate. That would have dire consequences not just for politicians, but for European democracy itself.

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20 March 2010

Bye-Bye Bluefin Tuna

So, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) rejected international trade restrictions on northern bluefin tuna, thus probably consigning it to extinction, and removing a key predator from the oceans, with who knows what knock-on effects.

Here's a certain Hisao Masuko, of the Japan Tuna Fisheries Cooperative Association, referring to the proposal to add the bluefin tuna to the CITES list of endangered species, which failed largely because of Japan's lobbying against it:

This could set a dangerous precedent. The list could grow to include yellowfin and bigeye tuna, as well. If nothing is done, we won't have any tuna at Tsukiji fish market.

Presumably you have to take a special stupidity test in order to become spokesperson for this organisation.

Sharing Ideas about Open Philanthropy

As regular readers of this blog will know, for the last five years or so I have been tracking the diffusion of the ideas behind open source into other spheres. I'm particularly interested to see what does and does not translate easily to other domains.

Here's another application: open philanthropy. Although something called the Open Philanthropy Exchange has been around for ten years, I think this is something different, not least because people's understanding of openness and sharing have moved on enormously in that time:

# Open sharing of ideas in philanthropy serves us all as we seek to solve shared problems.

# We need a Freedom of Foundation and Nonprofit Information Act. These organizations are tax-privileged data repositories. As such, their tax privileges should be linked to the degree they openly share and contribute the information, data, and knowledge that they produce for the public good.

# Openness extends to the interoperability of data - ours and others. Efforts to open government reporting, data sharing from municipalities and states, and open access to public records on donations, nonprofit filings, and public funding sources are all in the best interest of solving social problems.

# Experimenting with openness will show us what works. The Sunlight Foundation's recent "datajams" and Sunlight Live coverage of the health care reform discussions are a great working example of what information matters to whom, about what, and when.

# The ability and expectations of open-ness are changing. These new expectations will change what transparency really looks like and how it works (Here's one version - the Cycle of Transparency). Philanthropy can guide this or react to it, but it can not ignore it.

# Open matters to communities.

There's also this important point:

One of the things we've learned from the open source software movement is that codes of professional practice matter - the early licensing efforts to create code that developers could access, use, improve, and share again are critical to how software development happens. We need similar codes of professional conduct and practice in philanthropy.

It's a work in progress, and it will be fascinating to see how it developers. Good luck to all concerned.

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19 March 2010

Spotify: Make Money with Analogue Scarcity

This isn't another post about Spotify: it's a perceptive comment made by the company's CEO during an interview:

Q: We’ve heard services like Spotify people say “oh no we’re not going to buy music any more”. The idea of geting people to play a monthly fee, that seems promising. Why would someone buy something?

A: I think we’re going that route. But we find that music I really love, I tend to want to buy it. Not necessarily a plastic disk, but a special edition for an artist I really like, I’m more than happy to pay $100 for a box set with a t-shirt in it, liner notes. Another person may be willing to pay for a live edition with extended tracks. Or pay for a live concert experience. The reality of the music industry today is that there isn’t one biz model. It’s about figuring out how to use downloads, streaming, promotion, ticketing, all these things. I don’t think streaming music is stream.. with Spotify people label us ‘free’ music. But people pay, either with time (adverts, which are targeting), or actually paying for the service.

Of course, this is exactly what many of us have been saying for a while, and it's good that someone behind one of the more interesting new offerings seems to get this.

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Why the ICC Report Makes Me Ick

I have restrained myself from writing much about the ICC's "Building a Digital Economy" report, because I knew it would make me too cross. Fortunately, someone who is rather calmer me than me has done a better job than I would with some careful, rigorous analysis.

I urge you to read the whole thing, since it points out really well the huge holes in the report's logic and methodology. But there's one paragraph I'd like to pull out:

Most telling is the fact that the ICC report states that cinema ticket sales are also dropping, and seems to blame piracy for that. However, the MPAA has recently reported that global ticket sales are at an all-time high, with a global increase of 30% since 2005! More importantly, there is a lot of investment going into the industry, which indicates that it is very healthy. The MPAA reports that the number of digital 3D screens in Europe has grown from 0 in 2005, to 3,495 in 2009. That is hardly an industry affected by piracy.

I really think this is key: people are re-discovering both cinema and live music (something I've written about extensively on this blog). The fact that these are ignored is why the latest report is not just wrong, but completely wrong-headed. It perversely ignores the fundamental shifts in people's taste that the industry needs to understand and build upon.

And that's what really makes me sick: the fact that the media companies doesn't even want to acknowledge that it actually has a huge opportunity, but prefers instead to try to blame ordinary users for sharing and thus promoting their content.

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18 March 2010

Eben Moglen - Freedom vs. The Cloud Log

Free software has won: practically all of the biggest and most exciting Web companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter run on it. But it is also in danger of losing, because those same services now represent a huge threat to our freedom as a result of the vast stores of information they hold about us, and the in-depth surveillance that implies.

Eben Moglen - Prof. of Law at Columbia and former General Counsel for the FSF. Vergrößern Better than almost anyone, Eben Moglen knows what's at stake. He was General Counsel of the Free Software Foundation for 13 years, and helped draft several versions of the GNU GPL. As well as being Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, he is the Founding Director of the Software Freedom Law Center. And he has an ambitious plan to save us from those seductive but freedom-threatening Web service companies. He explained to Glyn Moody what the problem is, and how we can fix it.

On The H Open.

17 March 2010

Is Microsoft About to Declare Patent War on Linux?

Microsoft's comments on happenings outside its immediate product portfolio are rare, and all the more valuable when they do appear. Here's one from Horacio Gutierrez, “Corporate Vice President and Deputy General Counsel”, entitled “Apple v. HTC: A Step Along the Path of Addressing IP Rights in Smartphones.”

On Open Enterprise blog.

Speaking of Monsanto and Gene Patents...

And right on cue, like the catastrophe of the old comedy, comes some fresh news about Monsanto and its gene patents:

Monsanto Co., facing antitrust probes into its genetically modified seeds, may benefit from previous court rulings in which intellectual property rights trumped competition concerns, antitrust lawyers say.

Got that? Intellectual monopolies, as well as being inherently bad, are also a "Get Out of Jail Card" for companies breaking anti-trust law. Broken, or what? (Via @schestowitz.)

Where Do I Stand on GMOs?

I'm conscious that I've written a lot of negative posts about genetically-modified organisms on this blog. That might lead readers to believe I'm against them. That's not the case: I am naturally pro-technology, and GMOs are potentially an important tool for addressing many of the world's most pressing problems. But I have my concerns, and I was pleased to find that Salon's Andrew Leonard not only shares them, but has expressed them rather well:

I don't actually have a position on whether GMOs are by definition good or bad for the environment or human health or even the challenge of alleviating hunger in the developing world. My basic stance, in fact, is pro-science: I believe technological advances have greatly advanced human health and affluence, and will continue to do so, if properly regulated. My concern re GMOs has always stemmed from a profound skepticism that profit-seeking corporations can be trusted to responsibly serve the public good. One need look only at the constant stream of reports detailing unethical and criminal behavior by major pharmaceutical companies to realize that this is hardly a hypothetical concern.

In the case of GMOs we are dealing with a remarkable concentration of intellectual property ownership in just a handful of corporations. Like all well-endowed corporate actors, these companies do not shy from vigorously lobbying governments in favor of putting into place place legal frameworks that are designed to maximize profits and minimize caution.

Exactly: what worries me is the way that global companies are using GMOs, and the intellectual monopolies they represent, as instruments of power - particularly over poor farmers in developing countries - purely to bolster their market and financial positions. The sooner we can de-fang companies like Monsanto - for example by revoking gene patents - and explore the potential of GMOs in an objective and scientific manner, the better.

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16 March 2010

Time to Learn from China on Open Standards?

One of the major battles under way in Europe is over open standards. As its name suggests, an open standard is one that is open to all, without restrictions or obstacles; anything less than that is just window-dressing.

On Open Enterprise blog.

Beethoven by Numbers

One of the reasons I am so excited by Spotify is that it is asymptotically approaching an online library of All Music. Even in its necessarily incomplete state, it offers amazing possibilities. For example, one of the key advantages of having all this stuff on tap is that it's possible to create playlists that mix and match in interesting ways.

Here's a great example: a playlist of Beethoven's works ordered by opus number. Now, I already have the Brilliant Classics boxed set of Beethoven's complete works on CD, but that's rather different. In particular, I can't move through the works by opus number easily.

Why might I want to do that? Well, it's an interesting journey through Beethoven's works - not strictly chronological, but historical in terms of what came out when. In particular, it lets me see at a glance all those odd little works that usually get overlooked - the opus 42, 105, 128 etc. that rarely pop up.

The other great thing about services like Spotify is that they let people share in interesting ways by passing on their playlists. It's a level above simply sharing the files themselves, and adds a richness to listening that is not otherwise easy to replicate. It's a hint of a world where all content is freely available online, and we can share and build on each other's insanely stimulating mashups.

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15 March 2010

Does Quebec Hate Free Software?

I haven't been following all the ins and outs of this saga, but it looks like the Quebec government is getting unnecessarily heavy against the free software association FACIL ("Facil, pour l'Appropriation Collective de l'Informatique Libre" - nice: recursive acronym, too):

Quelques jours avant le début de la requête en audience opposant Savoir-Faire Linux et la Régie des rentes du Québec, le gouvernement Charest et le Centre des services partagés du Québec (CSPQ) a mandaté la firme d'avocats Tremblay Blois Mignault Lemay pour exiger le remboursement de 106,000.00 $ de frais de justice par FACIL, suite à une demande en justice qui a été rejetée par la Cour Supérieure et la Cour d'appel. Ce geste pourrait éventuellement entrainer la mise en faillite de FACIL.

[Via Google Translate: A few days before the start of the request for hearing opposing Savoir-Faire Linux and the Régie des rentes du Quebec, the Charest government and the Shared Services Center of Quebec (CSPQ) mandated law firm Tremblay Blois Mignault Lemay demanding reimbursement of $ 106,000.00 in legal fees by FACIL, following a judicial demand which was rejected by the Superior Court and Court of Appeal. This gesture might possibly cause the bankruptcy of FACIL.]

What's particularly disturbing here is that it looks like the regional government doesn't want anyone to question why it is going with proprietary software, and not giving free software a fair chance - that's doubly wrong. (Via @akaSassinak.)

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Power2010 Picks...Tony McNulty

Power2010 aims to highlight egregious cases of MPs damaging democracy and blocking its reform. For their first case, they have picked Tony McNulty, and I must say it couldn't have happened to a, er, nicer chap:

The former minister tried to hide his expenses from his constituents by voting to exempt Parliament from Freedom of Information. No wonder. His expenses revealed he'd been claiming for a second home, occupied by his parents, just miles from his primary residence forcing him to resign from government in disgrace.

His behaviour was made all the more galling by the fact that when in the Home Office he championed policies, such as ID card, designed to track, monitor and control the population. He has consistently stood for the old top-down politics of command and control and against reforms like a democratic House of Lords. That is why POWER2010 has selected McNulty as its first target in a nationwide effort to highlight the record of MPs who have opposed cleaning up and reforming our political system.

Great stuff. Just one question: why don't you put the letter's text in your Web page, using instead a great big image file? Just asking...

Anyway, there's a form you can fill in if you want to add your name to this letter. Thoughtfully, there's even a little space for that personal comment you've always wanted to send him....

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Why I Bother Acting on ACTA

As you may have noticed, I write quite a lot about ACTA. Indeed, I've been doing it for a comparatively long time: my first post on the subject was back in May 2008. So why do I bother?

Well, the fact that two years ago very few had heard of ACTA, whereas today many people know and care about it, is sufficient reason to carry on: it does make a difference, and people are starting to realise how serious this is. Moreover, hints like this suggest that making noise, even in that notorious echo-chamber that is the blogosphere, gets noticed in rarefied and exalted regions of power:

Recent informations have revealed to me that the worldwide anti-ACTA campaign is having an impact on EU officials, a number of which are following closely the highlights of the most well-known blogs and webs. This is a sign of the success of an effective public campaign that has forced the EU out of its bunker and into the open battlefield over the content of this important international agreement.

That's not to say that things are going swimmingly - they're not: the powerful are still powerful and hell-bent on getting their way. But we've come far, and we can go even further if we continue to acta on ACTA....

12 March 2010

The Future of Advantage: Sharing and Serving

As I've noted before, I often find Umair Haque's posts a little, er, opaque. But either he's getting clearer (possible) or my brain is improving (unlikely), because I not only understand this one, I find its ideas comfortingly familiar:

The future of advantage is radically different from the past for a simple reason: because it's economically better. 20th century advantage focuses firms on simply extracting resources from people, communities and society — and then protecting what they extract. 21st century advantage focuses firms on creating new resources, and allocating them better. The former is useful only to shareholders and managers — but the latter is useful to people, communities, and society. The old Microsoft was useful to shareholders, but a lot less useful to society — and that's exactly how Google and Apple attacked it, and won.

This is just the open source way: give away your products, and make money from providing services - you know, things that *serve* people.

I do, however, have my concerns about the positive examples he chooses to illustrate his ideas:

The future of advantage:

Allocative. Google's advantage was built on allocating attention to content and ads better than its rivals. Google's real secret? Relevance, media's measure of how efficiently attention is allocated. Match.com is building an allocative advantage in, well, matching people with partners. Allocative advantage asks: are we able to match people with what makes them durably, tangibly better off — and can we do it 10x or 100x better than our rivals?

Creative. Apple's advantage is, of course, radically creative: built on creating insanely great stuff that turns entire industries upside down. Next month, the iPad promises to do what the iPhone and iPod did before it. The power's in the creativity, not just the technology: Apple's thinking different yet again. Creative advantage asks: is our strategic imagination 10x or 100x richer, faster, and deeper than our rivals?

But the ones he chooses in contrast are pretty significant:

And the past:

Extractive. Over two decades, Microsoft has honed its extractive edge, coming up with cleverer and cleverer ways to extract profits from customers and suppliers. But Microsoft's just a flea on Wall St's elephant — who mastered extractive advantage by finding ways to, ultimately, extract trillions from you, me, and our grandkids. Extractive advantage asks: how can we transfer value from stakeholders to us, 10x or 100x better than our rivals?

Protective. Think Microsoft's the master of 20th century advantage? Think again. Monsanto's Round-up Ready strategy protects genetically modified crops with proprietary herbicide that crops need to flourish. The result? A protective advantage: Monsanto's made sure that farmers are locked in to Monsanto as tightly as possible. Protective advantage asks: are buyers and suppliers locked in to dealing with us, 10x or 100x more tightly than to rivals?

Hmm, Microsoft and Monsanto, what a combination - and interestingly, it's the latter that is singled out as clearly the worse of the two (which is why I am writing increasingly about the company and its activities.)

Clever chap that Haque; now, if I could just understand him more often....

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11 March 2010

Hollywood's Post-theatrical Problem, Isn't

There's a great piece in the Washington Post with the headline "The MPAA says the movie business is great. Unless it's lousy." This rightly points out that there is something funny going on in the film industry's view of itself.

On the one hand:

global box office receipts reached an all time high of $29.9 billion, an increase of 7.6% over 2008 and almost 30% from 2005. The U.S./Canada market reached $10.6 billion, an increase of more than 10%, and International receipts increased 6.3% to $19.3 billion in 2009 .... Ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada rose more than 5.5% from 2008, the first admissions increase in two years. Per capita ticket purchases in the U.S. and Canada also increased 4.6% to 4.3 tickets per person, the first significant increase since 2002.

On the other:

you wouldn't know that the movie business was doing so well from other MPAA announcements. Take, for instance, the December press release (PDF) in which MPAA chairman Dan Glickman suggested that unauthorized copies of movies were running the industry into the ground:

"Yet our industry faces the relentless challenge of the theft of its creative content, a challenge extracting an increasingly unbearable cost."

The writer then has the following key explanation:

Asked to clarify, MPAA spokesman Howard Gantman said the industry suffers the greatest damage from fraudulent copies (he said "piracy," but I disagree with that usage) in the post-theatrical markets -- video-on-demand, downloads, DVD and Blu-ray.

I love that "post-theatrical markets" phrase, but what I like even more is this amazingly clear illustration of what is happening in the film industry.

That is, the analogue side - ticket sales in the cinemas - is soaring, while the digital part - those "post-theatrical markets" - are on the way down. And that's absolutely inevitable, of course, because the scarcity is all on the analogue side, while the digital artefacts - downloads, DVDs and Blu-ray - have close to zero marginal cost (not so true for DVDs and Blu-ray, but close enough), so you'd expect their prices and profits to diminish.

In other words, the industry's own figures are a perfect confirmation that it needs to concentrate on the analogue side, and to regard the digital side as an incredibly efficient way to boost it. But somehow I don't think that's the message it's going to be taking home in the near future, more's the pity. (Via @rlancefield.)

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WikiPremed: Making Money from Free

The virtues of free are pretty inarguable, but advocating the open release of stuff inevitably begs the question: but how do you make a living from it? So it's always great to come across a *thriving* business built on giving stuff away, like WikiPremed MCAT Prep Course, "an open access comprehensive course in the undergraduate level general sciences".

Here's some background:

WikiPremed was created to make it easier for an intelligent, motivated person anywhere in the world to become a doctor. For premedical students in the United States, there is no better learning program than the WikiPremed MCAT Course for securing the level of mastery that earns a superior MCAT score. In addition to improving the accessibility of science education, the WikiPremed MCAT Course is an important contribution to educational design. This learning program teaches the physical and biological sciences within a unified curriculum, an approach developed over many years working closely with college students in small group teaching. The WikiPremed MCAT Course consists of twenty modules. Each module contains fifteen to twenty hours of videos and assignments. The resources here can be utilized as a stand-alone MCAT course or in combination with another course. There are no restricted areas on this website. You can study at WikiPremed for as long as you want. It is often useful to begin WikiPremed several months prior to beginning a live course to establish the conditions for the full realization of the potential of the live course within a more ambitious program.

And here's the key thing:

The WikiPremed MCAT Course is open access. There are no restricted areas. Although registration is free, when you find yourself relying on this site in a significant way for MCAT preparation, please make a one-time $25 Tuition Payment.

But that's not enforced, so there's always the risk that people won't pay. Happily many do, but more importantly, the site generates money from products that are complementary to the online content.

Given that many remain sceptical about the viablity of this approach, I emailed the creator of the site, John Wetzel, who filled me in on how things work:

Basically, the development of the WikiPremed content has been going on since 1994, and at this point, it is a very large body of work. I think it helps to look at the content from an object oriented programming model and think of the various modes of presentation as methods of the content objects. Everything is licensed creative commons attribution, and we make the online methods freely available, so for example, you can find the entire set of Physics Flash Cards online. We offer the printed versions of the things for which print may be appropriate for sale for a very reasonable price, and students do buy them because print has its own advantages. We put the whole set of physics cards online (three years of work!) and the students still buy the printed cards any way. Even if they want to support the work, I think they like to have a commercial arrangement and a simple value proposition.

There is one work, however, the Premedical Learning System, which sells for $32.95, where the advantages of the print version are so great, compared to the online presentations of the content, which are extensive, that we call the printed work 'essential' for the course, and it is definitely a good value. It's also a board game!

Students need printed study materials, and they get sick of the computer, so I definitely think there is room for creative commons educational content supported by print publications. I think there is an ethic to not holding content hostage to purchases, but I think there are commercial advantages to the open model as well. I don't doubt that the average customer at WikiPremed has 1000 page views before purchasing anything.

I am sure that if there were registration walls and missing chapters I would have fewer customers.

I'm not getting rich or anything, at this point, but it is working.

What's interesting here is that once again it's analogue goods that bring in the money, while the digital side does the marketing - a pattern that is emerging in many sectors.

But irrespective of the how, the simple fact of WikiPremed's success is good news: it means that Wetzel is likely to continue to offer his content for free, helping who knows how many impecunious students in the process; it also means that free content has another great case study showing how you can make money from giving stuff away.

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Microsoft Proves it Can Go Open Source

One of the technologies I am waiting for would allow me to effect transactions without giving over vast quantities of personal data. After all, what companies really need to know are: can I pay, and do I have the necessary qualities (age, residence) I claim to have. They don't need to know a vast range of irrelevant *details* about me.

Such a system exists; it's called U-Prove:

It was put together by respected cryptography researcher Dr Stefan Brands. He created a company to develop and market U-Prove, Credentica, which was bought by Microsoft in March 2008. With U-Prove, identity information can be used securely, and private data can be safely shared to those parties that need it, without leaking more information than is required.

U-Prove allows the creation of secure ID tokens, which are pieces of data that incorporate whatever information I need for a given task—but no more—along with cryptographic protection to ensure that they can't be forged, reused, traced back to me, or linked to other tokens that I have issued.

In a world with U-Prove, many existing identity management problems would go away. If my credit card company and online music service both supported U-Prove, I could create a token that allowed a single limited electronic money transfer from my card to the music company, without disclosing my name, address, or date of birth, and without that token being usable to make further purchases. Similarly, I might want to buy a computer game from an online store, the same situation as before, but this time with a twist: the computer game is rated 18+. So to make the purchase, I have to reveal my age, as well as the money transfer, to the online store. U-Prove lets me do this, but still doesn't require me to reveal my name, address, or any other irrelevant detail.

An hour-long presentation by Dr Brands describes how U-Prove works and how it achieves what it does (with even more detail available in his freely downloadable book). It builds on existing public key cryptography concepts, but adds to them the important ability to hide data. Normal public key cryptography is something of an all-or-nothing affair—to prove that a particular piece of data was encrypted by a particular person, you need to know the data. U-Prove allows that proof to take place without revealing all the data.

This is absolutely brilliant. There's just one problem: you can't use it in practical situations, because it's not widely deployed. And because it's not widely deployed, nobody uses it...

So, how do you break that vicious circle? Easy - you make it freely available to encourage uptake - and that's just what Microsoft has done:

It is for these reasons that Microsoft has released its U-Prove SDK using the open source BSD license. Source code is available in both C# and Java, and the technology is covered by Microsoft's Open Specification Promise. This is a irrevocable promise by Microsoft that the company will not assert any claims against anyone using the technology that relate to any patents covering the technology. By releasing the technology under a permissive license, and by making a legally binding agreement that patents covering the technology will not be used in legal action, the company hopes that there will be no barriers to using the system for both service and identity providers.

It's really great to see Microsoft taking advantage of open source in a *good* way; it's just unfortunate that the accompanying Open Specification Promise has a big loophole that makes it pretty useless for consideration by serious free software projects.

Now, if Microsoft were to place all the relevant patents in the public domain....

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A Class Act from the European Parliament

One of the most dispiriting aspects of the ACTA saga is that practically everything has been conducted behind closed doors. What we know is largely from leaks and a few, costive hints from officials when they deign to let us little people peak behind the curtain for a millisecond or two.

On Open Enterprise blog.

10 March 2010

Is Microsoft Afraid to Say the “L”-word?

It seems that, having lost its position as monarch of the world of computing, Microsoft has decided to become the industry jester. Last week I wrote about its amusing suggestion that we should all be taxed to clean up the mess its software has caused. Now we have this witty post on Microsoft's Port 25 site, which involves writing about open source software applications and the platforms they run on without mentioning “Linux” once.

On Open Enterprise blog.

Open Science vs. Closed Companies

Here are some interesting thoughts on open science and how it relates to those working within companies:

Just as secrecy in academia only makes sense within the existing reward structure, secrecy in industry could be at least partly offset by policy decisions that recognize the gains in efficiency that collaboration can bring. I've heard multiple times from multiple sources that industry may close itself off from the rest of the world, but within a company, the teamwork ethic is amazing. Clearly, the value of co-operation is recognized. Why shouldn't that also work for (larger and larger) groups of companies? What you lose by not being the only company to know something from which profit can be made (call it X) is offset by the fact that you might never have learned X without the collaboration -- and in the meantime, the world gets X that much faster.

It seems clear, though, that such top-down decisions are more likely to be made in academia, and perhaps the nonprofit sector, than in profit-driven industry -- at least until there are enough concrete examples of success to tip the perceived balance of risk. If I'm -- if we Open Foo types are -- right, it's actually riskier to compete than to cooperate in the long term. Better to own a share of X sooner than to delay any return on your investment in the hope of owning X outright later. This is especially true when the resources required to try to own X could be used to get you shares in multiple other projects at the same time.

Sharing should not be seen as a problem but as a solution.

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2012 Olympics Win Gold Medal for Liberticide

I always hated the Olympics as a vulgar, corrupt and expensive display of corrosive, narrow-minded nationalism. Later, I came to realise that it is also a splendid example of all that is wrong with intellectual monopolies, as the IOC tries to claims "rights" over everyday word combinations. Now I realise that it links up neatly with all kinds of issues relating to corporate greed and the police state:

Police will have powers to enter private homes and seize posters, and will be able to stop people carrying non-sponsor items to sporting events.

"I think there will be lots of people doing things completely innocently who are going to be caught by this, and some people will be prosecuted, while others will be so angry about it that they will start complaining about civil liberties issues," Chadwick said.

"I think what it will potentially do is to prompt a debate about the commercial nature of the Games. Do big sponsors have too much influence over the Games?"

Surely not.

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There's Nothing New Under the Sun

One of the many sad aspects of Sun's disappearance into the maw of Oracle is that many will see this as “proof” that its strategy of building on open source was a failure. But as Simon Phipps, Sun's former Chief Open Source Officer, rightly says in his valedictory blog post:

On Open Enterprise blog.

09 March 2010

Open Source Saves the Day (and Lots of Dosh)

It seems every day we hear about hideous cost overruns on public sector projects in the UK. What makes it even more frustrating is that open source, a real no-brainer for many applications, is rarely given the chance to prove itself here. Which means, of course, that there are no case studies to refer to, so no one gives open source a chance etc. etc.

Against that background, a new paper by Darrel Ince, Professor of Computing at the Open University, which rejoices in the deceptively-bland title of “The Re-development of a Problem System”, is pretty exciting stuff. The summary gives a good flavour of why that might be:

On Open Enterprise blog.

Open Science vs. Intellectual Monopolies

Here's a key section from the new Royal Society report "The scientific century: securing our future prosperity":

Science thrives on openness - the free exchange of idea, knowledge and data. Changes to the way that information is shared are already accelerating developments in certain disciplines and creating new approaches to research. This openness can create a tension with the need to capture and exploit intellectual property. But it also presents an opportunity for scientific collaboration and innovation.

Well, maybe it creates a tension because intellectual monopolies are fundamentally antithetical to science and knowledge. Maybe the scientific community needs to realise this, and ought to refuse to compromise on its basic tenets of sharing knowledge for the greater good, not least because the shift from analogue to digital is magnifying their importance. Maybe the report should have been less pusillanimous in this respect. And maybe, because it wasn't, it will be yet another case of words, words, words...

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08 March 2010

Bill Gates (Hearts) Openness a Bit More

Here's an interesting project: the Open Course Library. These are its goals:

* design 81 high enrollment courses for face-to-face, hybrid and/or online delivery
* lower textbook costs for students
* provide new resources for faculty to use in their courses
* our college system fully engages the global open educational resources discussion.
* improve course completion rates

Here's some background on the project:

All of the information about the project is online on a wiki. A big part of this project is for our system to figure out what it means to share our digital educational resources. What does it mean to work with publishers in new ways and get them to reconfigure their content into affordable and modular formats? What does it mean to go out and find open textbooks and evaluate them and modify them? What does it mean to understand the different types of Creative Commons licenses vs. copyright? And what do we have to understand re: the legality around how those licenses mesh or don’t mesh? And then how does that affect the final digital thing that we release at the end, and put out in Rice University’s Connexions [repository]?

We’ve been trying to be very open about the process, so we’ve got this wiki online with all the [project] information. You’ll see the project budget up there with the goals and the timeline for the project. We’ve been having town hall meetings this fall—not only going out to the colleges and meeting directly with faculty face to face, but we’ve just finished our third online town hall meeting. We use Elluminate and anybody in the world is welcome to come [to these meetings which] are archived and put up on the wiki as well. As questions [and] concerns come in, we address those and put the answers up on the wiki.

As you can read, there's an awful lot of open goodness in there. That's great news, of course, but it's also rather remarkable because of the following little fact [.pdf]:

The Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC) proposes a partnership between the Washington State Community and Technical College System (CTC) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to improve access to and completion of higher education for low income young adults in Washington State.


The SBCTC requests $5.295 million to implement the Washington State Student Completion Initiative (WSSC). This initiative includes four multi-college student completion projects that will yield long term results by breaking down key barriers to completion throughout the Washington community and technical college system.

One of those projects is the Open Course Library. So good to see Bill supporting all that openness...

Open Source and Security: Are there Limits?

You might think that's a pretty ridiculous question to ask, since the canard about open source being less secure than closed source has been debunked many times. But it seems that some people didn't get the memo:

On Open Enterprise blog.

05 March 2010

UrbanLabs OS: Not What You Think...

How about this: an open operating system for a *city*?

Misión: idear, desarrollar, testear, implementar y difundir componentes de un nuevo sistema operativo de ciudad, que mejore los procesos de comunicación, participación y consumo bajo parámetros abiertos, eficientes y sostenibles. Se deberán diseñar y/o reutilizar diferentes tipos de interacciones y de redes entre tecnologías y personas en el espacio urbano, así como mecanismos de visualización, difusión y mejora de cada uno de los componentes del sistema. UrbanLabs OS se puede componer de diferentes proyectos autónomos que obedezcan a estos objetivos, potenciando el desarrollo de los mismos de manera transversal.

[Via Google Translate: Mission: To devise, develop, test, deploy and diffuse components of a city's new operating system, to improve communication processes, participation and consumption parameters under open, efficient and sustainable. Should be designed and / or reuse different types of interactions and networking technologies and people in urban space and display mechanisms, diffusion and improvement of each of the components of the system. UrbanLabs OS can be composed of several autonomous projects which respond to these objectives, encouraging the development of them in a cross.]

Very cool idea.

Update: there's now an English intro.

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04 March 2010

Open Source Earth

One of the main impulses behind this blog is looking at the ways the ideas behind free software are being applied in other areas. Another major focus is that of the commons in all its forms - all the way up to the ultimate commons, the environment. Well, here's something that combines these ideas:

Open Source Earth is an International Non-Governmental Organization whose mission is to educate people of Earth about Open Source and Resource Based practices, and to get people to use those principles to create what is needed to sustain Human life.

Open Source Earth could also be an answer to what seems to be happening in the global economy today. If we backup our computer data, why not have a backup for how we live. Open Source Earth was formed as a Trans-National Social Movement Organization and has 3,500+ people in it's network around the world. It was formed to use the power of numbers, and increased probability to solve the problems that face humanity today. Sharing knowledge for alternative ways to live and inspiring people to use these technologies where they are in the world to better conditions.

With Open Source Earth, Technologies are Open Sourced, giving the concepts and designs away rather than patenting them for sale or licencing, empowering people with the tools to create what is needed to live and flourish. Technologies such as BioGas Digesters, the effluent of which can be used to grow food, textile, medicine, plants that can be used as building materials, oil producing plants, fuel, plastic or other crops in an organic hydroponics system.

(Via OSBR.)

Hear that Mozilla Drumbeat? No, Me Neither

A few months ago, I wrote about Mozilla's new Drumbeat campaign, "a global community of people and projects using technology to help internet users understand, participate and take control of their online lives."

As a big fan of Mozilla since its earliest days, I'm all in favour of this - just as I'm in favour of its new Drumbeat site for developers. As Mark Surman explains:

Our main goal with this early version of the site is to get people developing and working on a handful of Drumbeat projects. Which is why we're calling it a 'developer version'. It's intended first and foremost for brave souls with good open web ideas who are ready to a) put their ideas on the table and b) help us figure out how Drumbeat should work along the way.

If that sounds like you (brave soul + big open web idea), check out the site and create an account, then go to the 'create a project' form to describe what you'd like to work on.

Well, that's absolutely super-duper and fab, Mark, but just a teensy-weensy little thing: when something is called *Drumbeat*, as in making a noise, getting the message out etc., you don't think it might be a vaguely good idea to *tell people what you're doing*?

Had it not been for the wonders of Twitter, I would never have known about this latest move, and that's both a pity and something of a concern for the future of Drumbeat...

Update 1: There's now a Drumbeat calendar which gives an indication of the planned crescendo...

Update 2: Mark Surman has fleshed things out with this useful post.

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The Bottom-Up View of Free Software

The charmingly-named "Bottom-Up" is one of those blogs that I may not always agree with, but which I know will be intelligently written and well-worth reading. And sometimes I find myself not only in perfect synchrony with its author, Timothy Lee, but wishing I'd put something so well as he has.

Here's a case in point, a post discussing the view that "the government has an obligation to make its decision based on the characteristics of the software, without discriminating based on licensing or business models." This is the "level-playing field" argument that I discussed recently, and pointed out that there were historical reasons to do with vendor lock-in why such "playing fields" actually favoured incumbents.

But Lee comes up with a brilliant analogy:

Suppose federal agencies had a long-standing practice of obtaining their care fleets by renting them from companies like Enterprise and Hertz (or, more likely, government contractors that charged ten times as much as Enterprise and Hertz would). Now suppose the GSA did a study and found that the government would save hundreds of millions of dollars by purchasing automobiles rather than renting them. Suppose further that many agencies were finding that the limitations of their rental contracts (mileage limits, reporting requirements, slow repair service, whatever) were making it harder for them to do their jobs. So the GSA issues new guidelines saying that government agencies should henceforth prefer buying to renting.

Now, there are all sorts of good arguments on both sides of the renting-vs-owning decision. But one argument that doesn’t make sense is to say that government would be “distorting the market” if it decided to buy cars rather than leasing them. A purchased car is a different kind of product than a leased car. If car ownership serves the government’s needs better than car rental, the government is entitled to purchase cars without worrying about how this affects companies in the business of renting cars.

The same point applies to software. The difference between Windows Server 2008 and Red Hat Enterprise Linux isn’t just that one was produced by humorless suits in Redmond and the other was produced by dirty hippies in Raleigh. It’s not even that one costs a lot of money and the other one is free. (Support costs will often dwarf licensing fees anyway).

The key difference is that proprietary software comes with a lot of restrictions about how it may be used—restrictions that don’t apply to free software.


The freeness of free software is not an esoteric detail about how software was produced, nor is it primarily a matter of ideology. Rather, free software provides direct and tangible benefits to their users. If property rights is a bundle of sticks, free software vendors give you all the sticks up front, whereas proprietary vendors give you only some of the sticks so they can charge you later for the others. And some of the missing sticks are things that actually matter to government agencies. So it strikes me as a no-brainer that the government would—all else being equal—prefer the type of software that comes with fewer strings attached.

It’s absurd to say that the government has an obligation to be indifferent between firms that attach strings to their products and firms that don’t do so. Obviously, there are circumstances where a firm makes such a great product that it’s worth putting up with the associated strings. But it should be equally obvious that software freedom is a factor to weigh in software purchase decisions. And I don’t anything wrong with reminding government IT workers to keep this factor in mind when they make software purchasing decisions..

The key point here is that different kinds of licensing bring with them very different kinds of benefits, and deciding to favour one over the other is a valid decision. What wouldn't be fair would be favouring a particular type of supplier over another where the benefits they offered were broadly the same: that would simply be a distortion of the software market. But here we effectively have two quite different solutions - different markets - like those of car purchase and car rental. It's a great way of looking at things, and one that I wish I had thought of....

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Of Android and the Fear of Fragmentation

Many were sceptical when Google announced that it was launching another mobile platform. After all, some said, there are already multiple offerings out there, and Google had precisely no track record in this sector: surely it was heading for a fall? The launch of the first Android phone, the G1, seemed to confirm these doubts. Although capable enough, it was clearly not going to carry Android through into the mainstream.

On The H.

03 March 2010

Schools for Scandal - the UK's

Here's an interesting piece about software in UK schools. There are a couple of remarks that although incidental, are incredibly revealing of all that's wrong with UK schools in this respect:

several people told me of contracts which meant that every time a school wanted to upgrade software, or even install something free like Mozilla Firefox, they had to pay a hefty fee to their contractor. That meant they were reluctant to change anything, with the result that software was soon out of date.


I spoke to Tom Barrett, a Nottinghamshire primary school teacher, who's part of network of like-minded individuals trying out new methods. Tom told me about a lesson where he was teaching probability by asking friends on the Twitter social network to predict the likelihood of snow in their part of the world.

It sounded like an engaging lesson - and the technology cost nothing. Of course there are computers and electronic whiteboards in Tom Barrett's school - but he says using free software or indeed gadgets like mobile phones which children bring to school themselves means added flexibility: "I think some of the larger scale projects like Building Schools for the Future... have been guilty of taking too long to roll out." The danger then, he says, is that the technology moves on, whereas with free software you can keep up to date at no cost.

Obviously, it's scandalous that schools not only don't have the option to install Firefox in the first place - since it's much safer than Internet Explorer - but that they must *pay* to install it afterwards. As the article rightly notes, this means they also pay in another way, through lock-in to old software because they can't afford to do so.

Meanwhile, the other quotation hints at what might be achieved if only free software were more widely deployed: the ability to "keep up to date at no cost".

The fact that this is still a problem in 2010, with schools still locked in to a scelerotic Microsoft monoculture, is a huge blot on the record of all those responsible.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

01 March 2010

Act on ACTA: Write to Your MEPs

As long-suffering readers will know, I've been banging on about the dangers to free software – and much else – of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) for a long time. The bad news is that ACTA hasn't gone away or got better in that time; the good news is that more and more people are becoming aware of just how awful it is, and why the secrecy surrounding its negotiations is just plain wrong.

On Open Enterprise blog.

Which Licence for Open Source Digital Voting?

Here's a provocative thought:

We’ve dared to suggest that the GPL as it stands today, or for that manner any other common open source license, will probably not work to adequately provide a license to the software sources for elections and voting systems technology under development by the Open Source Digital Voting Foundation.

It's an important issue, since applying open source software to digital voting is something that you really want to get right - for the sake of open source and democracy.

Here are just some of the key issues that the Open Source Digital Voting Foundation faces:

1. Open source licenses rarely have “law selection” clauses. Fact: Most government procurement regulations require the application of local state law or federal contracting law to the material terms and conditions of any contract (including software “right to use” licenses).

2. Open source licenses rarely have venue selection clauses (i.e., site and means for dispute resolution). Fact: Many state and federal procurement regulations require that disputes be resolved in particular venues.

3. There are rights assignment issues to grapple with. Fact: Open source licenses do not have “government rights” provisions, which clarify that the software is “commercial software” and thus not subject to the draconian rules of federal procurement that may require an assignment of rights to the software when the government funds development. (There may be state equivalents, we’re not certain.) On the one hand, voting software is a State or county technology procurement and not a federal activity. But we’ve been made aware of some potential parallelism in State procurement regulations.

4. Another reality check is that our technology will be complex mix of components some of which may actually rise to the level of patentability, which we intend to pursue with a “public assignment” of resulting IP rights. Fact: Open source licenses do not contain “march-in rights” or other similar provisions that may be required by (at least) federal procurement regulations for software development. Since some portion of our R&D work may be subject to funding derived from federal-government grants, we’ll need to address this potential issue.

5. There is a potential enforceability issue. Fact: Contracting with states often requires waiver of sovereign immunity to make licenses meaningfully enforceable.

6. In order to make our voting systems framework deployable for legal use in public elections, we will seek Federal and State(s) certifications where applicable. Doing so will confer a certain qualification for use in public elections on which will be predicated a level of stability in the code and a rigid version control process. It may be necessary to incorporate additional terms into “deployment” licenses (verses “development” licenses) specific to certification assurances and therefore, stipulations on “out-of-band” modifications, extensions, or enhancements. Let’s be clear: this will not incorporate any restrictions that would otherwise be vexatious to the principles of open source licensing, but it may well require some procedural adherence.

Interesting stuff. At the moment:

At this juncture, its looking like we may end up crafting a license somewhat similar in nature to the Mozilla MPL.

Views, anyone?

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

Microsoft Hoist by its Own Anti-Anti-Competitive Petard

One of the decisive moments in computing history was when Microsoft was investigated for and found guilty of breaching US rules on anti-competitive behaviour. Microsoft's line in defending itself was that it was not anti-competitive, that this investigation was all down to desperate, failed competitors trying to take their petty revenge by setting the government on the company, and that it should be allowed to “innovate”, untrammelled by those silly governmental authorities that just don't understand all this groovy technology stuff.

On Open Enterprise blog.