May 12, 2004

Creative Commons highlights final day of OS conference

Author: David 'cdlu' Graham

TORONTO -- The third day of the KMDI Open Source conference at the University of Toronto produced no clashes between open source and proprietary advocates and started with the only split session of the three-day event. In one room, a discussion took place on open source in medicine. In the other, the discussion focused around open source and open content in education.

Neeru Paharia of Creative Commons led off the day with a flashy presentation. Creative Commons, she explained, is an alternative to copyright that allows creators to quickly assign various conditions to their works and register them online.

Creative Commons provides country-specific copyright licenses for creators which outline base rules for whether or not anyone can copy, creative deriviate works from, or use for commercial purposes the work in question. Using it, a work -- whether it be writing, a movie, poetry, music, any form of articistic or written creation -- can be anything from fully protected under normal copyright rules to being effectively in the public domain.

Creative Commons: Alternative protection

At the launch of the Creative Commons consortium, videos were sent in by John Perry Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Jack Valenti of the Movie Producers Association of America endorsing its creation. Valenti acknowledged that not everyone wants to release their artwork under standard copyright rules, and that it was a good idea to allow people to have alternative ways to release artwork with different sets of restrictions.

Guylaine Beaudry of érudit, a project based jointly at the Université du Québec à Montréal, the Université de Montréal, and the Université de Laval -- three French-language universities -- helps to have scientific research get published in non-profit journals. In so doing, érudit saves research and educational institutions thousands of dollars a year and keeps research and results in the hands of non-profit groups rather than companies whose interests may not necessarily be with the public good.

Subscriptions to non-profit journals, Beaudry said, cost about one-third of commercial journals. Erudit is a public service infrastructure within the Unix community whose goal is the promotion and dissemination of research outcomes. The organization's first objective is to get research journals up on line as soon as they can.

Most schools and students don't care about open source, she said, but érudit does. Seventy percent of their process is open source, and 100 percent of it is open formats, though she warned that open source can be like proprietary software should it be lacking good docmentation. For the most part, though, she said using open source leaves more money in érudit's budget than proprietary software. Even if open source costs more at the outset to get set up, it is still worth it.

She said that science journals need to be considered a part of the public good. Commercial scientific journals do not have the best interests of the scientific community and the public at heart, she said, and should be stopped and replaced with the open model of scientific journals her project provides.

After lunch, Ronald Baeker, chair of the conference and a professor at the University of Toronto, led off the final afternoon panel discussion before the closing keynote address with Claude Gagné, policy advisor to the government of Canada's Department of Industry, Thomas Goetz of Wired magazine, Joseph Potvin of Public Works and Government Services Canada, and Mark Surman of the Commons Group.

Canada 'needs open source debate'

The five of them gave brief introductions and the floor was opened to general discussion with the physical and on-line audience. Baeker started by identifying the issues we are facing as issues of power, community, control, and trust.

Gagné gave her perspective that Canadians need to be more aware of and should better understand open source. She said she agreed with Bob Young's assessment that Canada needs to have an open source-style debate on public policy over patents and copyrights, and she said that the Canadian government is having a debate on whether code written within the government should be released as open source code.

Goetz told the audience that he is explicitly not a lawyer, nor a programmer, nor a Canadian. Open source, he said, is not just a means to commodify existing proprietary software but a means to new ends. It allows and encourages progress.

Potvin told us the government of Canada is ours -- at least for the Canadians in the room -- and not just in elections, but all the time.

Surman said that the most important question for us to answer is what does open source mean and do for Canada. He also asked if open source is a civil rights movement. Canada's social-economic background means that Canada needs more open source, and, he said, open source needs more Canada.

The first questioner from the audience asked the panelists where they thought open source technology would take us over the next 30 years. Would we see a Boeing 747-level in complexity coming from open source? Also, he asked, with intellectual property volume increasing every year, is copyrighted property sustainable?

Baeker stated that how far open source software can go is an empirical question. More research, he said, needs doing on how to make open source projects more successful, referring to the large volume of projects on SourceForge which are abandoned or effectively dead.

Potvin picked up from there, saying that failed open source projects are no more failures than scientific experiments. The projects that have been orphaned or abandonned are a stage toward something else, a new project.

Gagne said the Internet is a Pandora's box that has been opened and is impossible to stop, with so much activity, new phenomena, and no clear legal answers.

Goetz said that the SourceForge phenomenon is that of developers scratching their own itch, but that in many cases not enough people share an itch for projects to survive. Failed projects at SourceForge, he went on, are not unlike diseases abandoned by pharmaceutical companies which have found that solving a specific disease would not bring in enough revenue to make up for the R&D costs of solving it.

At this point, an attendee announced: "I am one of the failures on SourceForge. My program got knifed, not forked."

Potvin told the audience that when a project or program starts receiving complaints it is a time to rejoice, because it means people are using it.

Internet a Pandora's box?

A commentor suggested that the Internet can, in fact, be put back in the Pandora's box. Media companies, he said, are buying up Internet infrastructure companies and are taking control of the Internet. If Disney can block Michael Moore's latest movie, "Farenheit 9/11," from coming out, what's stopping them from a few years from now being able to block some information from being distributed on the Internet at all, through infrastructure rather than legal means? Goetz responded by asking if media ownership or government regulation would be better.

Steve Mann of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Toronto, known for his work in wearable computers, gave the conference's closing keynote address.

With a dry wit to his speech, Mann, who invented the wearable computer as a Ph.D project more than two decades ago, told us that he does not see what we call open source or free software as those terms, but rather that it is free source with a required 'WARE' on the end.

Richard M. Stallman, he said, wrote that he believes everyone has a write to read. Mann said his belief is that everyone has a right to think.

As our society gets to the point where we are implanting computers in our bodies, it will become possible, he warned, to make having certain thoughts enforceably illegal.

As he spoke, the overhead projector previously used for presenter's PowerPoint presentations was serving as a display of what he could see through glasses with a built-in camera and mild image processing. Instead of using presentation software of any sort, he had a small white notepad on which he wrote with a black marker. As he wrote, we could see it from his perspective on the overhead and the need for any form of slides for his writings was eliminated.

The camera/glasses set up he was wearing, he told us, is capable of filtering advertising in the street such as billboards and other street-side ads. He said there are a couple of Ph.D students working full time on that problem.

Using wearable computers and cameras mounted on the person, he said, privacy can actually be improved.

The value of wearable cameras

Surveillance, he noted, translates from French as "oversight." Sousveillance, he said, means "undersight," and is the term he uses to refer to the camera he wears. He believes that should everyone wear these cameras, privacy can be improved because the need for surveillance cameras to exist would no longer be there. With wearable cameras any time there is more than one person, it is assumed there is no privacy, and when you are alone, it is assumed there is privacy.

He points to camera attachments for modern cell phones as an example of why he believes it is a matter of when, not if, we get to this point in society.

Mann's take on the GPL and on proprietary software is that there is a spectrum from copyleft to copyright. At copycenter, he said, is the public domain.

Pictures, he said, should belong to the person whose likeness they are of, regardless of who took them. To that end, he has written the Humanistic Property License Agreement to provide limited rights to use a picture taken of someone under the license.

Mann's research is expensive, pointed out an audience member, and he came across as not particularly pro-corporate during his presentation, so where does he get his funding for his research? His funding comes from doing lucrative corporate speeches, consulting work, and donations, he said.

Conference critique

The conference as a whole functioned well. Its only fault was that the sessions routinely went over their alotted time. The selection of speakers and presenters, while I couldn't cover all of them in my summaries of the conference, were all well-selected and interesting. The conference was well worth attending to nearly anyone interested in any aspect of open source, free software, free source, libre software, or whatever else you'd like to call it.

The entire conference will be posted in about a month on the Internet as downloadable video files, along with all the PowerPoint presentations that were submitted and other information about the conference.


  • Linux
Click Here!