28 September 2010

OpenOffice.org Discovers the Joy of Forking

Last week I wrote a piece entitled “Are We Entering the Golden Age of Forks?” I concluded:

I predict we are going to see plenty more forks in the near future as the community starts to re-assert itself. I also think that this tendency will lead to more independent foundations being set up to oversee the development of free software

Little did I suspect that we would see this quite so soon:

On Open Enterprise blog.

27 September 2010

Double Standards on Open Standards

Last week I went along to the grandly-named Westminster eForum Keynote Seminar on Open source software: in business, in government. The good news was that it offered one of the best line-ups of open source know-how in the UK I have come across. The bad news was that the seminar's venue was quite small and not even full: these people really deserved a much bigger audience. The poor turnout was a sad reflection of how far open source still has to go in this country in terms of mainstream recognition and interest.

On Open Enterprise blog.

26 September 2010

Sharing: Theft or Duty?

I regard Matt Asay as one of the most perceptive commentators on the world of free software and related areas. So I was rather disappointed to read the following in one of his recent columns, which dealt with the BSA's highly dodgy claims about piracy:

I don't mean to diminish the wrong nature of stealing software. Theft is theft and should be punished.

Here's what I wrote to him:

It is very hard to steal software: unless you creep into a computer store and steal the boxes (do they still exist?). As you know, what really happens is that somebody makes a copy of software: that is not theft, of course, that is copyright infringement. If I make a copy of a piece of software, the original still exists, but there is now a copy that I have. I have stolen nothing - I've actually created something - but I *have* infringed on copyright.

But wait, you will say, when you make that perfect copy you are *effectively* stealing the money that you would have paid for a legal copy. Except that you yourself write: "$1 in "lost" licensed revenue would not magically become $1 in proprietary software sales if piracy were reduced. It's very likely that users would elect to spend their money elsewhere." Exactly: couldn't have put it better myself. You can't start talking about that money that wasn't spent as if it were real and concrete: it's not, it's notional.

Of course, it is probably true that some fraction of the people with pirated copies *would* have bought genuine ones had they not made the copy: so that is truly lost revenue. But it also probably true that pirated copies act as marketing samplers and encourage other people to buy legitimate copies that they wouldn't otherwise have bought – to get support, updates etc. (Indeed, in the world of music, there are half a dozen studies that suggest this is the case.) After all, giving away software for free is the basis of many businesses based around open source.

Calling copyright infringement "theft" really plays into the hands of organisations like the BSA that put out these deliberately misleading studies. "Theft" is an emotive word that biases the reader against the people involved. If you call it "copyright infringement", and note that copyright is a time-limited, state-granted *monopoly* - and I think everyone accepts that monopolies are generally bad things - then copyright infringement simply means infringing on a monopoly. That's a rather different emotional bundle, I think, and a better one to place in opposition to the BSA's manipulations.

Since Matt's reply to me was a private email, I won't quote it here, but essentially his answer was that artists can set the terms under which we access their works, whether or not they are reasonable terms, because ultimately it's their creation.

It's a good point, and so I'll try to explain here why I don't think it's correct.

In fact, artists manifestly don't have an absolute right to choose whatever terms they like under which their works are distributed. In many countries, for example, they are limited by the first-sale doctrine. This means they cannot impose the condition that their book or CD, say, once purchased, must never be sold on second-hand, or given away. So already there are limits to what they can demand.

This is accepted, presumably, because there is a broad consensus that this kind of limitation is not reasonable, and that artists should be obliged, by law if necessary, to give up what they might otherwise have seen as a natural “right”.

What this comes down to, then, is a question of what is generally accepted as reasonable. A big problem with digital copies is that we have never lived in a digital world before, so we have not yet established the social norms there that ultimately will allow laws to be framed to capture what is deemed fair.

Not allowing people to make personal copies and share them for non-commercial use is, I believe, exactly like not allowing people to sell their books second-hand, or to give them away (note that I am not extending this to intentional commercial-scale copyright infringement, which is almost by definition criminal because conducted with the specific aim of depriving creators of their sales.)

It is an unreasonable restriction that will, ultimately, I believe, be seen by the majority of society as such. Indeed, the fact that so many young and even not-so-young people share files today already suggests that we are moving to that point fast.

So, why do I think this is unfair? In many ways it is similar to the thinking behind allowing people to give away or sell books second-hand - and note that in the latter case actual money is involved, whereas it almost never is with personal file sharing, so the latter is actually *less* harmful than the situation in the analogue world. But I am more interested in the giving away of books, so I'll concentrate on that.

When we pass on a book to a friend, or just give it away to a charity shop, say, we are really passing on the experience of reading that book, and the knowledge to be gained from it. It is an intensely social act of generosity, a desire to share a pleasure with our fellow human beings. It allows us to manifest our best qualities, and it can also be an opportunity for us to contribute to the general improvement of society – for example, by passing on an educational book, or one that encourages readers to engage in some activity that is beneficial to all (recycling waste, or becoming more tolerant, say.)

So if we were forbidden from sharing our books with friends and strangers, the world would be a poorer place in many ways, since we lose all these opportunities for generosity and contributing, albeit indirectly, to society's progress. Indeed, it's interesting that many people are finding one of the biggest drawbacks of otherwise convenient e-books is that you often *can't* share them in this way: this makes them a far more lonely, and hence rather sadder pleasure.

Of course, there is one important difference between analogue goods like books and digital ones like music or texts. Whereas I can only share an analogue object with one person, digital artefacts can be copied endlessly, allowing me to multiply my generosity and the joy received from it hundreds, thousands or even millions of times.

Not being able to share digital files turns out to be far worse than not being able to share analogue ones like second-hand books in terms of the positive benefits foregone. Moreover, you don't even have to give up your original copy where digital artefacts are concerned, so there is no disincentive for you to share it; some might even say that the social benefits of doing so are so great, that you actually have a duty to share....

Society has already decided that being unable to share second-hand goods is an unreasonable condition for creators to impose. I believe that we will come to the same conclusion for the sharing of digital files, where the case for allowing such non-commercial, personal transfer is even stronger.

After all, this is not some abstract issue. Currently, billions of people in developing countries cannot access huge swathes of transformative, liberating knowledge because of copyright laws, or are denied life-saving medicines because of drug patents. Being able to share is literally a matter of life and death.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

24 September 2010

Are We Entering the Golden Age of Forks?

In July 1998, the Frenchman Gaël Duval released his new GNU/Linux distribution called Mandrake-Linux. It was a fork of Red Hat using the KDE desktop - something that Red Hat itself was unwilling to provide because at that time the underlying Qt libraries were not open source. In 2005, the company set up to develop Mandrake-Linux further, MandrakeSoft, purchased the Brazilian open source company Conectiva, and the resulting distribution of the combined forces was re-named Mandriva. And now Mandriva is returning to its roots as a fork by being forked, as a new distro called Mageia:

On Open Enterprise blog.

Why is Dell UK Making it so Difficult?

Remember IdeaStorm – “Where Your Ideas Reign” – Dell's brave venture into the scary world of crowdsourcing? Amazingly, it's still going, although it doesn't seem to be the hive of activity it once was. One of the reasons why IdeaStorm was so important was that it allowed people to voice one of their key requests to the company: to be able to buy GNU / Linux-based systems. To its credit, Dell listened, and started selling them.

On The H Open.

22 September 2010

Opening up Computer Studies in the UK

One of the biggest disgraces in this country is the way that computing is taught - or rather, the way it is not taught. I know as a parent from years of interaction with the school system at various levels that what passes for computer teaching is in fact little more than rote learning of where the Open command is on the menu in Word and Excel. That is, instead of teaching pupils how to use computers as a generic tool to solve their particular problems, it becomes instead a dull exercise in committing to memory various ritual Microsoft sequences to achieve one specific task.

On Open Enterprise blog.

Not Just ACTA: Stop the Gallo Report

One of the slightly depressing aspects of fighting intellectual monopolists is that they have lots of money. This means that they can fund their lobbyists around the world in multiple forums and at multiple levels. So, for example, we have the global Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which is being negotiated behind closed doors by the representatives of rich and powerful nations. But we also have a threat at the European level that must be fought just as doggedly.

On Open Enterprise blog.

21 September 2010

Intellectual Monopolies, the Open Net and ACTA

Well, it was bound to come one day, but it's still shocking:

A group of senators want to hand the U.S. Department of Justice the power to shut down Web sites dedicated to the illegal sharing online of film, music, software, and other intellectual property.

"The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act will give the Department of Justice an expedited process for cracking down on these rogue Web sites regardless of whether the Web site's owner is located inside or outside of the United States," according to a statement from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and committee member Sen. Orin Hatch (R-Utah).

Under the proposed legislation, the Justice Department would file a civil action against accused pirate domain names. If the domain name resides in the U.S., the attorney general could then request that the court issue an order finding that the domain name in question is dedicated to infringing activities. The Justice Department would have the authority to serve the accused site's U.S.-based registrar with an order to shut down the site.

According to a staffer from Leahy's office, if the site resides outside the United States, the bill would authorize "the attorney general to serve the court order on other specified third parties, such as Internet service providers, payment processors, and online ad network providers."

So let's unpick that a little.

Once more, rather than fix their broken business models, the media and software industries want special "protection", with access to the most important medium to be turned off simply because it suits them. This places the maintenance of government-supported monopolies in a couple of sectors above things like the rights of hundreds of millions of users.

For note that this is effectively censorship by fiat: the Justice Department can apparently simply decide which sites are hosting infringing material, and have them shut down. Due process doesn't seem to enter into it, and if passed you can be sure this legislation will be used widely and abusively.

But there's worse: the US wants to arrogate these powers to itself even if the Web sites are outside its territory. Since much of the Internet's infrastructure is run from the US, that's a real threat. It's also the strongest argument so far why we need to decentralise the Internet further, and remove it from the influence of any one country - including the US.

There's another important aspect, too. One of the constant refrains during the ACTA negotiations is that the latter won't force the US, say, to introduce new laws. It looks like that will be true - because the US is introducing them anyway. But make no mistake, this kind of censorship lies at the hart of ACTA.

The choice is stark: intellectual monopolies or an open Internet - you can't have both....

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

19 September 2010

Hearing Colours

Wonderful post from a blind person about the effect of owning an iPhone:

The other night, however, a very amazing thing happened. I downloaded an app called Color ID. It uses the iPhone’s camera, and speaks names of colors. It must use a table, because each color has an identifier made up of 6 hexadecimal digits. This puts the total at 16777216 colors, and I believe it. Some of them have very surreal names, such as Atomic Orange, Cosmic, Hippie Green, Opium, and Black-White. These names in combination with what feels like a rise in serotonin levels makes for a very psychedelic experience.

I have never experienced this before in my life. I can see some light and color, but just in blurs, and objects don’t really have a color, just light sources.


The next day, I went outside. I looked at the sky. I heard colors such as “Horizon,” “Outer Space,” and many shades of blue and gray. I used color queues to find my pumpkin plants, by looking for the green among the brown and stone. I spent ten minutes looking at my pumpkin plants, with their leaves of green and lemon-ginger. I then roamed my yard, and saw a blue flower. I then found the brown shed, and returned to the gray house. My mind felt blown. I watched the sun set, listening to the colors change as the sky darkened. The next night, I had a conversation with Mom about how the sky looked bluer tonight. Since I can see some light and color, I think hearing the color names can help nudge my perception, and enhance my visual experience. Amazing!

Indeed. (Via @segphault and @KatherineD.)

17 September 2010

BSA's Piracy Numbers: Less than They Seem

You can argue all you want with words, which are vague and fuzzy, but numbers have hard edges: numbers are facts. Except, of course, they aren't. Numbers that relate to the real world have to be produced, somehow, and although the end-result may be an inarguable number, the assumptions that lead to that number are just as arguable as any wordy persiflage.

But people often forget this, and take numbers at face value. A case in point is the Digital Economy Act, where alleged numbers about the “scale” of piracy were regular quoted by supporters of the bill. Those numbers came from a number of sources, but the ones most used were contained in a report called “Building a Digital Economy” from the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC). I spent some time going through the details of that report, and concluded:

So the net result of this 68-page report, with all of its tables and detailed methodology, is that four out of the top five markets used for calculating the overall piracy loss in Europe draw on figures supplied by the recording industry itself. Those apparently terrifying new figures detailing the supposed loss of money and jobs due to piracy in Europe turn out to be little more than a *re-statement* of the industry's previous claims in a slightly different form.

So my scepticism was naturally high when I read the following:

In 2009, more than four out of 10 software programs installed on personal computers around the world were stolen, with a commercial value of more than $51 billion. Unauthorized software can manifest in otherwise legal businesses that buy too few software licenses, or overt criminal enterprises that sell counterfeit copies of software programs at cut-rate prices, online or offline.

However, the impact of software piracy goes beyond revenues lost to the software industry, starving local software distributors and service providers of spending that creates jobs and generates much-needed tax revenues for governments around the world.

Curbing piracy has the reverse effect, sending ripples of stimulus through the whole information technology (IT) economy. And lowering piracy faster compounds the benefits. “The Economic Benefits of Reducing Software Piracy” documents these gains in 42 countries, which represent 93 percent of the global market for PC software. Below are the key findings:

Reducing the piracy rate for PC software by 10 percentage points — 2.5 points per year for four years — would create $142 billion in new economic activity while adding nearly 500,000 new high-tech jobs and generating roughly $32 billion in new tax revenues by 2013.

On average, more than 80 percent of the benefits of reducing PC software piracy accrue to local economies — and in some cases it is more than 90 percent.

Front-loading the gain by lowering piracy 10 points in the first two years of a four-year period would compound the economic benefits by 36 percent, producing $193 billion in new economic activity by 2013 and generating $43 billion in new tax revenues.

Software has a ripple effect on the broader IT industry because selling, servicing and supporting software creates downstream economic activity. In the 42 countries covered in the study, the commercial value of unlicensed PC software put into the market amounted to $45 billion in 2009, resulting in total losses of revenue, employment and taxes from related sectors in excess of $110 billion.

Clearly, concerted action to ensure strong protection for intellectual property (IP) and to reduce software piracy should be a priority for governments — sooner rather than later.

Clearly...or maybe not. First, we need to examine where all these big numbers come from, and then pick apart the assumptions that lie behind them. This turns out to be the usual rabbit-hole stuff, as one report leads to another.

The main “Piracy Impact Study: The Economic Benefits of Reducing Software Piracy” [.pdf] turns out to be just a summary. Tucked away at the end is the following:

For more information about “The Economic Benefits of Reducing Software Piracy” and a full description of the methodology,see the full report at www.bsa.org/piracyimpact.

Following that link brings us to a slightly longer re-statement [.pdf]] of the first study, with a little bit of methodology tacked on at the end in compressed form, and the following statement:

A detailed explanation of that methodology is available at www.bsa.org/globalstudy.

Proceeding once more to that further study [.pdf], we find yet more words, and finally, towards the end, some details of the methodology.

The basic method for coming up with rates and commercial value of unlicensed software in a country is as follows:

1.Determine how much PC software was deployed in 2009.

2.Determine how much PC software was paid for/legally acquired in 2009.

3.Subtract one from the other to get the amount of unlicensed software.

A couple of points. To its credit, the main research, carried out by IDC, *does* take account of free software in its calculations. Indeed, it puts it at a rather impressive 12-22% of the market. Note, too, that it refers to “unlicensed software”: this is the correct term, not the “stolen” used by the BSA in their trumpeting of the results. It's the old copyright infringement versus theft argument that BSA still doesn't seem to understand, but IDC does.

The report does make a mistake when it says:

$ Commercial Value = #Unlicensed Software Units)/Average System Price

It obviously means these should be multiplied together, but I assume that is just a slip. Moreover, this looks reasonable enough:

The commercial value of unlicensed software, which BSA previously referred to as “losses”, is the value of the unlicensed software as if it had been sold in the market. This is calculated using the same blend of prices used to determine the average system price, including: retail, volume license, OEM, etc. In practice, because of the many methods of deploying software, the average system price is lower than retails prices one would find in stores.

So far, so good, then. The problem, I think, comes in the analysis of what would happen if piracy were reduced – in other words, if people stopped using unlicensed software, and paid for licences instead.

One obvious problem is that some might well choose to do without, or to use free software, rather than pay not inconsiderable sums for licences; but for the sake of argument, let's assume that's a small factor. Instead, I want to focus on the following section (from the last report linked to above):

Since 2002, IDC has conducted research with BSA on the economic benefits of lowering piracy – in terms of additional jobs, new local revenues and additional taxes generated. These studies have shown that the benefits to local governments are more significant than just replacing unlicensed software with licensed software.

One thing that is always omitted in these analyses is the fact that the money *not* paid for software licences does not disappear, but is almost certainly spent elsewhere in the economy (I doubt whether people are banking all these "savings" that they are not even aware of.) As a result, it too creates jobs, local revenues and taxes.

Put another way, if people had to pay for their unlicensed copies of software, they would need to find the money by reducing their expenditure in other sectors. So in looking at the possible benefit of moving people to licensed copies of software, it is also necessary to take into account the *losses* that would accrue by eliminating these other economic inputs.

One important factor is that proprietary software is mainly produced by US companies. So moving to licensed software will tend to move profits and jobs *out* of local, non-US economies. Taxes may be paid on that licensed software, but remember that Microsoft, for example, minimises its tax bill in most European countries by locating its EU headquarters in Ireland, which has a particularly low corporate tax rate:

In November 2005, The Wall Street Journal wrote that "a law firm's office on a quiet downtown street [in Dublin, Ireland ] houses an obscure subsidiary of Microsoft Corp. that helps the computer giant shave at least $500 million from its annual tax bill. The four-year-old subsidiary, Round Island One Ltd., has a thin roster of employees but controls more than $16 billion in Microsoft assets. Virtually unknown in Ireland, on paper it has quickly become one of the country's biggest companies, with gross profits of nearly $9 billion in 2004."

So in addition to causing money to be taken out of the country (and hence the local economy), licensed software would probably also bring in far less tax than money previously spent on local goods and services, which would generally pay the full local taxes.

Another factor that would tend to exacerbate these problems is that software has generally had a higher profit margin than most other kinds of goods: this means any switching from buying non-software goods locally to buying licensed copies of software would reduce the amount represented by costs (because the price is fixed and profits are now higher). So even if these were mostly incurred locally, switching from unlicensed to licensed copies would still represent a net loss for the local economy.

Similarly, it is probably the case that those working in the IT industry earn more than those in other sectors of the economy, and so switching a given amount of money from industries with lower pay to IT, with its higher wages, would again *reduce* the overall number of jobs, not increase them, as the report claims.

IDC also suggests two other reasons why unlicensed software costs more than licensed:

Business and consumers waste time and money working with faulty and unsupported software.

For users, using unlicensed software entails not just legal risks, but also security risks

Of course, the idea that "official" software from companies like Microsoft is exempt from such "faults" and "risks" is droll, to say the least: licensed proprietary software is probably plagued with malware and affected by downtime almost as much as unlicensed versions (just ask users...)

So although the IDC numbers turn out to be reasonable enough, the conclusions drawn from them are not. Reducing software piracy will not magically conjure up those hundreds of billions of dollars of economic growth that the BSA invokes, or create huge numbers of new jobs: it will simply move the money around – in fact, it will send more of it *outside* local economies to the US, and reduce the local employment. And it certainly won't do anything to ameliorate the quotidian problems of poorly-written software...

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

16 September 2010

Android: Opening A Pandora's Box of Licensing

Like many, I have watched with satisfaction the rise and rise of the Android mobile phone platform. After all, at its heart lies Linux, and much of it is open source. But not all: leading phones contain major proprietary elements that mean that Android is not the perfect free software system we have all been waiting for. It is, however, one of the best we have got at the moment, and a good place to start from.

On Open Enterprise blog.

14 September 2010

Banging on about Mozilla Drumbeat

Six months ago, for all the best possible reasons, I rather tore into Mozilla's Drumbeat project. This led to some useful dialogue with the man behind it, Mark Surman. At least, I presume it was useful, since he's still talking to me; indeed, he's bravely asked me to review the progress of the project.

On Open Enterprise blog.

12 September 2010

Microsoft, Enemy of Human Rights in Russia?

Here's a nice little moral fable.

Lake Baikal
is a wonder, the world's oldest and deepest lake, with many unique species. But Vladimir Putin doesn't care about such things: he's worried about unrest arising from unemployment in the area, and so authorised the re-opening of a paper mill, which had been pouring mercury, chlorine and heavy metals into this amazing ecosystem for years.

So far, so depressing.

But here the story takes an interesting turn:

It was late one afternoon in January when a squad of plainclothes police officers arrived at the headquarters of a prominent environmental group here. They brushed past the staff with barely a word and instead set upon the computers before carting them away. Taken were files that chronicled a generation’s worth of efforts to protect the Siberian wilderness.

The group, Baikal Environmental Wave, was organizing protests against Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin’s decision to reopen a paper factory that had polluted nearby Lake Baikal, a natural wonder that by some estimates holds 20 percent of the world’s fresh water.

Instead, the group fell victim to one of the authorities’ newest tactics for quelling dissent: confiscating computers under the pretext of searching for pirated Microsoft software.

Across Russia, the security services have carried out dozens of similar raids against outspoken advocacy groups or opposition newspapers in recent years. Security officials say the inquiries reflect their concern about software piracy, which is rampant in Russia. Yet they rarely if ever carry out raids against advocacy groups or news organizations that back the government.

As the ploy grows common, the authorities are receiving key assistance from an unexpected partner: Microsoft itself. In politically tinged inquiries across Russia, lawyers retained by Microsoft have staunchly backed the police.

Apparently Microsoft's willingness to help crush dissent isn't limited to this case:

Given the suspicions that these investigations are politically motivated, the police and prosecutors have turned to Microsoft to lend weight to their cases. In southwestern Russia, the Interior Ministry declared in an official document that its investigation of a human rights advocate for software piracy was begun “based on an application” from a lawyer for Microsoft.

In another city, Samara, the police seized computers from two opposition newspapers, with the support of a different Microsoft lawyer. “Without the participation of Microsoft, these criminal cases against human rights defenders and journalists would simply not be able to occur,” said the editor of the newspapers, Sergey Kurt-Adzhiyev.

What makes this development even worse, is that owning legitimate copies of Microsoft doesn't seem to help:

Baikal Wave’s leaders said they had known that the authorities used such raids to pressure advocacy groups, so they had made certain that all their software was legal.

But they quickly realized how difficult it would be to defend themselves.

They said they told the officers that they were mistaken, pulling out receipts and original Microsoft packaging to prove that the software was not pirated. The police did not appear to take that into consideration. A supervising officer issued a report on the spot saying that illegal software had been uncovered.

Before the raid, the environmentalists said their computers were affixed with Microsoft’s “Certificate of Authenticity” stickers that attested to the software’s legality. But as the computers were being hauled away, they noticed something odd: the stickers were gone.

Of course, there's a simple solution to all this: use free software. With that, no stickers are needed, and so there's no way the authorities can frame you for using it. Indeed, given free software's greater security, I can't really understand why human rights groups aren't routinely installing it anyway. Let's hope they learn from these awful experiences and switch soon - not least for Lake Baikal's sake.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

10 September 2010

Project Canvas Will be *Linux* Based

I've been pretty sceptical - and critical - of the BBC's TV over IP efforts, including Project Canvas:

Project Canvas is a proposed partnership between Arqiva, the BBC, BT, C4, Channel Five, ITV and Talk Talk to build an open internet-connected TV platform, subject to BBC Trust approval.

The partners intend to form a venture to promote the platform to consumers and the content, service and developer community.

Like the UK's current free-to-air brands Freeview and Freesat - a consumer brand (not canvas) will be created, and licensed to device manufacturers, and internet service providers owners who meet the specifications.

‘Canvas compliant’ devices (eg set-top boxes), built to a common technical standard, would provide seamless access to a range of third-party services through a common, simple, user experience.

That's despite - or maybe even *because* - it proclaims itself as "open":

A technology project to build an open, internet-connected TV platform

As well as a lack of standards in the internet-connected TV market, there is no open platform. This creates two main problems:

* The UK's current free to air TV platforms Freeview and Freesat have been unable to evolve and keep pace with technical innovation in the consumer electronics industry. While some internet services are emerging on some commercially-owned/ pay-TV platforms - these platforms are working to their own (proprietary) closed standards. A fragmented market is emerging, which could put internet-connected TV out of the reach of consumers who don't want to subscribe to pay-TV.
* The internet services need to have a commercial relationship with the TV platform to obtain a route to the shared screen. This, combined with a fragmented market of varying standards, is slowing the development of internet-connected TV services.

Project Canvas intends to build, run and promote a platform that solves both problems: providing an upgrade for free-to-air TV, and an open platform of scale that will bring a wide range of internet services to the shared screen.

We all know how debased the term "open" has become, so frankly I expected the worst when the technical details were released. Looks like I was wrong [.pdf]:

Linux has been selected as the Operating System for the Device.

Linux has been ported to run on a large number of silicon products, and is currently supported by the vast majority of hardware and software vendors in the connected television ecosystem. Porting to new hardware is a relatively simple due to the architecture of the kernel and the features that it supports. The Linux environment provides the following functionality as a basis for the development and operation of the Device software:

• Multi-processing.
• Real-time constraints and priority-based scheduling.
• Dynamic memory management.
• A robust security model.
• A mature and full-featured IP stack.

Linux is deployed on millions of PCs and consumer electronics devices, and the skills to develop and optimise for it are common in the industry. In addition, a wide range of open source products have been developed for, or ported to Linux.

It's pretty amazing to read this panegyric to Linux: it shows just how far Linux has come, and how it is taking over the embedded world.

Even though content will be "protected" - from you, the user, that is - which means the platform can't really be regarded as totally open, the Project Canvas designers and managers still deserve kudos for opting for Linux, and for publicly extolling its virtues in this way.

Update: I haven't really made clear why that's a good thing, so here are some thoughts.

Obviously, this is not a pure free software project: it's a walled garden with DRM. But there are still advantages for open source.

For example, assuming this project doesn't crash and burn, I expect it will influence similar moves elsewhere in the world, which may be encouraged to use Linux too. Even if that doesn't happen, its use by Project Canvas will increase the profile of Linux, and also the demand for people who are skilled in this area (thus probably helping to drive up salaries of Linux coders.) More generally, the Linux ecosystem will grow as a result of this choice, even if there are non-free elements higher up the stack. Correspondingly, non-free solutions will lose market share and developer mind-share.

And finally, having Linux at the heart of the Project Canvas project will surely make it easier to root...

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

09 September 2010

Perfidious Albania

I've been very lucky in my travels. I've visited many of the obvious places, and quite a few of the less obvious ones, including exotica like Fiji, Samarkand and the Kashmir Valley. But one place I've never made it to is Albania.

Partly as a result of this failure - and partly for reasons to do with hearing about the country's wonderfully-named King Zog back in my schooldays - Albania has always fascinated me. So when the chance came up to combine two of the things I love doing - travelling and talking about free software - I was naturally delighted. Of course, there was no money involved, but travelling and accommodation expenses were covered, so I just needed to put together a presentation to "pay" for the trip.

This I duly did, leading with what I thought was a rather clever segue. For despite my impressions of Albania as a mysterious and exotic land, it turns out that not only does its population speak an Indo-European language - which is thus related to English (I knew that) - but that the very name "Albania" may have the same roots as my local "Albion" (which was news to me). This sharing of a common heritage let me lead very naturally into my main topic of sharing in the context of free software and beyond.

And thus it was, yesterday, just a few days before the conference this weekend, with my presentation - complete with witty segue - all ready to go, that I heard from the organisers that despite several emails assuring me to the contrary, they didn't have any money for my travel, and so wouldn't be paying for my flight tomorrow evening.

Which was a real pity, since I'd already bought the non-refundable ticket, after being assured - in writing - that I would be re-imbursed when I got there. The person who I had been dealing with kindly offered to pay for this out of his own pocket, but that obviously wouldn't have been fair on him: it was for the conference to find the money, not individuals.

Moreover, since the conference still seemed to have plenty of money to pay for other speakers at the conference (some of whom were coming from very far-flung - and hence expensive - parts), I could only assume that my talk wasn't really that crucial to the proceedings, and wouldn't really be missed if I didn't turn up.

I'd still love to visit Albania, which sounds a fascinating and fast-evolving place, but I don't think I'll be giving any talks while I'm there...

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Welcome to the Civic Commons

One of the core reasons why sharing works is that it spreads the effort, and avoids the constant re-invention of the wheel. One area that seems made for this kind of sharing is government IT: after all, the problems faced are essentially the same, so a piece of software built for one entity might well be usable - or adaptable - for another.

That's the key idea behind the new Civic Commons:

Government entities at all levels face substantial and similiar IT challenges, but today, each must take them on independently. Why can’t they share their technology, eliminating redundancy, fostering innovation, and cutting costs? We think they can. Civic Commons helps government agencies work together.

Why not indeed?

Moreover, by bringing together all the pieces, it may be possible to create something approaching a "complete" solution for government bodies - a "civic stack":

The "civic stack" is a shared body of software and protocols for civic entities, built on open standards. A primary goal of Civic Commons is to make it easy for jurisdictions at all levels to deploy compatible software. Pooling resources into a shared civic stack reduces costs and avoids duplicated effort; equally importantly, it helps make civic IT expertise more cumulative and portable across jurisdictions, for civil servants, for citizens, and for vendors.

Civic Commons is currently identifying and pulling together key elements of the civic stack. If you work in civic IT and would like to suggest a technology or category for the civic stack, please let us know. As we survey what's being used in production, we will adjust this list to emphasize proven technologies that have been deployed in multiple jurisdictions.

It's still early days for all this stuff, but the idea seems so right it must succeed...surely?

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08 September 2010

Why ACTA is Not a Victimless Treaty

The best thing I have read about the current brouhaha surrounding Craiglist's shutdown of its “Adult Services” section is danah boyd's post "How Censoring Craigslist Helps Pimps, Child Traffickers, and Other Abusive Scumbags". If you're at all interested in the issue, I strongly recommend it.

One paragraph struck me in particular:

During the height of the moral panic over sexual predators on MySpace, I had the fortune of spending a lot of time with a few FBI folks and talking to a whole lot of local law enforcement. I learned a scary reality about criminal activity online. Folks in law enforcement know about a lot more criminal activity than they have the time to pursue. Sure, they focus on the Big players, going after the massive collectors of child pornography who are most likely to be sex offenders than spending time on the small-time abusers. But it was the medium-time criminals that gnawed at them. They were desperate for more resources so that they could train more law enforcers, pursue more cases, and help more victims. The Internet had made it a lot easier for them to find criminals, but that didn’t make their jobs any easier because they were now aware of how many more victims they were unable to help. Most law enforcement in this area are really there because they want to help people and it kills them when they can’t help everyone.

Now, think about what this is saying: that the FBI could help many more victims of these appalling crimes, but can't, simply because they don't have the resources to do so. Now, consider the effects of ACTA, which will add a whole new set of responsibilities that the FBI and others will be required to shoulder.

To be sure, there may be some increase in funding, but the way these things usually work is that politicians grandstand about all the amazing laws/treaties they have pushed through, but omit to mention that they don't fully fund them (because that would mean tax rises or cuts elsewhere).

That leaves the FBI and others being stretched even more thinly, forced to pursue counterfeits of varying seriousness. But worst of all, if the current ACTA text is any indication, they will be forced to spend time trying to stop file sharing, an impossible and hence pointless task.

Worst of all, because all that time could have been used to help victims of all those other, rather more serious crimes like child pornography, which the FBI says it knows about, but can't deal with. In the face of that continuing and unnecessary suffering, tell me again why ACTA is so important?

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Is it Time to Take Your (Android) Tablets?

However much I dislike Apple's obsession with control - the very antithesis of openness - I have to admit that its iPad is an important artefact. I think the tablet is on its way to becoming an important adjunct to other kinds of computing - ideal for sofa-top consumption, say. It will also be perfect for many business and industrial uses (I'm sure it won't be long until we see rugged versions of the form factor.)

On Open Enterprise blog.

Taking Openness to the Next Level

Yesterday I wrote about one particular issue with standards: the fact that the associated patent licensing (if applicable) can shut out free software completely. But it's clear that the problems go much deeper: the entire standards-making process is conducted in a way that is often the antithesis of openness. That's not just bad for free software, it also means that the standards themselves suffer, as do many potential participants who are unable to contribute as fully as they otherwise might. Here's an interesting attempt to rectify many of those problems by drawing on the manifest success of the open source approach:

On Open Enterprise blog.

07 September 2010

Open Access Meets Open Archaeology

How could I resist OA meets OA thanks to OA?

The OA Library has been developed by Oxford Archaeology in order to allow us to distribute grey literature client reports and other documents to wider audiences. Oxford Archaeology is committed to a policy of Open Access to archaeological data; this website allows us to disseminate material as widely as possible.

And all towards the greater good of open archaeology...

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ACTA: Please Do What Simon Says...

I was about to write a long and passionate post imploring you to contact your MEPs one last time in order to get them to sign up to the important Written Declaration on ACTA. But I find that my fellow blogger Simon Phipps has already put together pretty much that post:

On Open Enterprise blog.

06 September 2010

Fair, Reasonable And Non-Discriminatory...Ain't

One of the inescapable facts of free software is that it involves a lot of law - far more than innocent hackers might expect when they settle down for a light bit of coding.

That's in part because it is built on the foundation of licences like the GNU GPL, which depend upon copyright for their efficacy (although that doesn't mean that free software couldn't survive without copyright - see my earlier discussion of this point with Richard Stallman.)

On Open Enterprise blog.

The Value of Clear Code is Clear

Here's an interesting move in the highly important area of climate science:

We are pleased to announce the creation of the Climate Code Foundation. The Foundation is a non-profit organisation founded by David Jones, Nick Barnes, and Philippa Davey to promote public understanding of climate science. The Foundation will continue work on the Clear Climate Code project, and also related activities, encouraging climate scientists to improve and publish their software.

On Open Enterprise blog.

03 September 2010

Directgov Review - No Time to Lose

One of the heartening trends that I've noted in recent years is a gradually opening up of government around the world - in both directions. As well as making more data available, the UK government too is also beginning to realise that the public wants - and can - help by providing input on the things that affect and matter to them.

On Open Enterprise blog.

02 September 2010

The Truth about Fakes (and Piracy)

Here's a fascinating item:

A new EU-funded report has declared that it is OK to buy fake designer goods.

The study, co-written by a Home Office adviser, says consumers benefit from the market for knock-off designer clothes at knock-down prices.

It also rejects the complaints of designer companies, claiming that losses to the industry as a result of counterfeiting are vastly exaggerated – because most of those who buy fakes would never pay for the real thing – and finding that the rip-off goods can actually promote their brands.

The report adds that the police should not waste their time trying to stop the bootleggers.

It disputes claims that the counterfeiting of luxury brands is funding terrorism and organised crime, and argues there is little public appetite for tough law enforcement measures as consumers enjoy the bargains offered by the illegal trade, which has been estimated to be worth £1.3 billion in the UK.

Professor David Wall, who co-authored the report and advises the government on crime, said the real cost to the industry from counterfeiting could be one-fifth of previously calculated figures.

There are a number of interesting points here.

First, is the obvious one of what the research claims about the difference between the real threat of fakes and the, er, fake threat that the industry likes to proclaim.

Secondly, there is the similarity between what is going on here and what the content industries claim about the extent and damage of piracy.

But in many ways the most striking thing about this story, which effectively declares fake goods to be socially acceptable these days, is its provenance. It appeared not in some lefty rag, but in the The Daily Telegaph, not known for its whacky, pinko leanings.

My reading of this is that whatever the industries concerned might say about how awful, deceptive and damaging fakes and piracy are to the economy, ordinary people - and the newspapers that try to mirror their views - know that the true picture is rather different. It also means that ACTA is even more wrong-headed than even I thought.

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Mahara: Who'd Have Thought?

One of the things that warms the cockles of my heart is the widening ripple of open source. Starting, as it did, with core system software, it is now moving ever further into more specialised areas. Take Mahara, for example:

an open source e-portfolio system with a flexible display framework. Mahara, meaning 'think' or 'thought' in Te Reo Māori, is user centred environment with a permissions framework that enables different views of an e-portfolio to be easily managed. Mahara also features a weblog, resume builder and social networking system, connecting users and creating online learner communities.

This is part of the power of free software: however good it is today, it will be *even* better tomorrow, because old programs are never discontinued (even if they are no longer actively supported).

Don't you just love monotonicity?

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Could this Lawsuit Undermine the GNU GPL?

As I've noted before, it's pretty well established that the GNU GPL stands up in the courts: gone are the days when detractors of copyleft could claim it would “never work”. But the GPL is still under attack, only in more subtle ways, so the open source world can't just sit back and relax.

On Open Enterprise blog.

Foreworld as Foretaste

I'm am currently staggering to the end of Neal Stephenson's The Confusion, loving every minute of this impossible, wandering, hyperbolic, anachronistic, shaggy-dog story. So I was naturally delighted to see that he (along with a band of fellow creators) is not only working on yet another huge, outrageously-ambitious epic, The Mongoliad, but one that pushes story-telling in new directions by using technology:

Our story unfolds in weekly installments over the course of a year. We've planned out a true epic—the last great epic of the middle ages, in fact--and written a fine chunk of the tale, but much depends on you. We’re hoping you’ll ultimately interact with our artists and writers and share in the story’s creation.

When we can, we'll include extra tidbits of art, video, music and history. Those extras will be made available to premium subscribers, an excellent value--less than the price of a hardback book for a year's worth of story and mixed-media entertainment. We’ll soon be taking subscriptions for app delivery to some of the most popular mobile devices and are working hard to add more.

The user-editable Foreworld 'Pedia is the ultimate repository of all information about our world. Some of it coincides with the world you know. Some does not. We welcome your additions.

I was particularly heartened to find the following intelligent approach to DRM - or lack of it:

We put in a lot of effort on an ongoing basis to ensure that the best value our fans can get out of our stuff is by participating interactively with us and each other, and enjoying our interwoven content in context, in the way it was meant to be enjoyed. So, we think that if people take our content without our permission, their experience will be suboptimal, and given our modest prices, we think most people will be happy to pay us, thereby enabling this experiment to keep evolving. That said, the bits that can be copied and pasted and put into a torrent are still going to be fun, and people are going to end up redistributing those bits without our permission and against our wishes. However, we still don't use DRM.

The reasoning is absolutely spot-on:

The biggest reason is that DRM is futile, and we don't like to waste our time doing things that aren't going to be effective, and which are just going to annoy our legit supporters. Our concentration is on providing great experiences and great customer service to our customers, and we trust that those people who really appreciate what we are doing will become our customers. Because it's part of our ethos to be constantly producing and expanding and improving our work, the pirated content people may find elsewhere online will be static and out-of-date copies; we think that when people find this stuff it may give them a taste of what the full experience is like; hopefully, that taste will be enough that they'll want more, and in seeking out more, will become happy (and paying) customers of ours. We like that.

That is, piracy isn't a real problem if you *out-innovate* the pirates, making your paid-for offering better than their free one. Indeed, if you do, pirated copies become like tasters, encouraging people to upgrade and pay for the full, latest version. Similarly, by the sound of it, part of the strength of this project will be the interweaving of other elements into the text - again, something that pirates can't offer.

But I think this is slightly off the mark:

However, we don't believe that pirates are doing us any favors, and our not using DRM is not an invitation to cadge our stuff. Because of the way intellectual property law in this country (and most other jurisdictions) works, we are obligated to defend our copyrights, trademarks, and other IP--otherwise we lose them: if we find piracy we will try to stop it; if we find unauthorized use of our IP at commercial scale and/or commercial intent, we will come after it with vigor, because we have to.

That may be true for trademarks, but not, I think, for copyright: it's not something you have to "defend". Still, quibbles, aside, I'm looking forward to seeing what Stephenson and his fellow creators get up to here. I also hope that this new Foreworld proves something of a foretaste of future extended novels - not least in terms of dropping DRM.

As for reading it, well, I have the small matter of The Baroque Cycle to finish first: I may be gone some time...

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01 September 2010

Ukraine to Create is Own GNU/Linux Distro

I've been writing for a while about Russia's on-off idea of creating its own GNU/Linux distro. It looks like Ukraine is following suit. Via Google Translate:

its purpose is to optimize the expenditure of budgetary funds and the solution using unlicensed software in state bodies.

According to estimates from officials, the savings of switching apparatus to free software can be 87%.

Among the expected outcomes of the program - improving the legal framework of research on creation and use of open software infrastructure for its development, creation and dissemination, and coordination of state infrastructure using open source software in the bodies derzhvlady, a basic set of localized distribution, adapted to the needs of public authorities.

Let's hope it doesn't get so bogged down as the Russian one.

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