July 11, 2002

Gilmore's donation will create P2P program to compete with for-pay RPM update services

-By Grant Gross -

The first project of the Public Software Fund, a fledgling group dedicated to funding Free Software, will be a peer-to-peer file-sharing program for RPM packages, intended to compete with for-pay offerings from several Open Source companies.
Internet activist and Public Software Fund initiator John Gilmore has donated $35,000 toward the P2P project, saying it's partly a response to for-pay services like Red Hat's up2date, Ximian's Red Carpet and Lindows.com's Click-N-Run.

"There seems to be a trend among open-source companies to try to make money by
charging the public over and over and over for the same old thing
(which the public could have merely shared among themselves)," says Gilmore, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Some of these companies even purport to 'license you' to only use these open source packages 'in support of' a single CPU.

"But we all know that once you have a copy of an open source package, you are free to share it," he adds. "Anybody who tried to give you a copy on more restrictive terms is violating the GNU General Public License. So this software is an attempt to help
'eliminate the middleman' and reduce the transaction costs of sharing open source software. "

Lindows.com as gotten flak recently for its $99 Click-N-Run service, which charges users to download anything more than three Open Source programs in its database. [Lindows.com PR people weren't immediately available for comment.] But several other Open Source companies do offer some variation of update services, with the for-pay option mostly focused at enterprise users, and Open Source advocates have long held that this kind of service can be the foundation of a successful Open Source business.

Countering the Slashdot effect

Gilmore's donation is aimed at paying Fidonet developer Tom Jennings build on existing Free Software RPM packages like BitTorrent and /current/ to take the load off Free Software download sites.

"... There's a 'Slashdot effect' that happens when a new
major release of software comes out," Gilmore says. "Whether it's Mozilla, GNOME, Red Hat, or a security patch for anything, the people who publish it get
their web site swamped from high demand. BitTorrent is a peer-to-peer technology that's designed to solve that particular problem, by having all the people who happen to be downloading at the same time also cross-load pieces of the file to each other. This uses each downloader's upstream bandwidth, and reduces the load on the central or
mirrored servers."

Gilmore suggests that if enough of the Open Source/Free Software community has a BitTorrent client, sites like Slashdot can start publishing BitTorrent URLs for downloads they link to, in addition to the "old-style" links. "Building some of this
technology into RPM updaters should make it cheaper to host open
source software packages, allowing small organizations or individuals
to cut major releases without buying mega bandwidth," he adds.

An additional goal for the project, Gilmore says, is building a P2P application that "moves many gigabytes per hour," but has no copyright problems to slug out in court.

"Open source software is legally free for all to share; no oligopoly can shut down
its distribution," he says. "The music moguls have deliberately muddied the
distinction between merely making tools for copying, and the act of
stealing. They have tried to impose a legal standard of 'your system
cannot allow theft or it will be shot down.' This standard would have eliminated Xerox machines, printing presses, FM radio, audio tape, CD-R, and even human storytelling (which was used for centuries to record and transmit human knowledge). So we're trying to build a peer-to-peer file-sharing application that has, how shall we say it, overwhelming volumes of 'substantial non-infringing uses.'"

What's is the Public Software Fund?

Public Software Fund president and longtime Free Software advocate Russell Nelson says the organization applied for non-profit status May 30. The goal of the fund, which was launched in February, is to allow patrons who've been donating money to Open Source projects to get tax deductions.

"John Gilmore noticed that he was funding the development of a fair
amount of public benefit software, and yet not getting a tax write-off
for it," Nelson says. "He asked me to start a non-profit to reward people currently
paying out-of -pocket to create software, and to give an incentive to people who
are paying for proprietary software.

"Basically, we want to give the same advantage to individuals paying
for software as have corporations: a tax write-off," Nelson adds. "Everything that
corporations pay for is tax-deductible, but of course they have to
also be making a profit. Individuals don't have to make a profit on
what they do, but neither have they had any tax benefit. Now that the
Public Software Fund exists."

While the non-profit status is still pending, Nelson says the fund at least gives those people now donating to Open Source projects a chance for a tax write-off. He's approached the Xbox Linux Project to see if its anonymous $200,000 donor might want to go through the fund.

Gilmore says he hopes the fund will encourage people to think about donating money for Open Source/Free Software projects instead of proprietary ones. "There are a lot of people spending money to cause free software to be written," he says.
"These donations are a gift to the community, and these gifts will benefit the public in perpetuity. They should ideally be accounted for as a charitable donation,
both for purposes of social understanding, and for accounting.

"We are starting with the very simplest cases -- where the donor knows
what software they want, knows who could do the job, will pay for the
whole thing themselves, and the donor and programmer are unrelated,
rather than employer/employee," Gilmore adds. "If we can make that work smoothly,
then in later years we can try to enable more complicated scenarios."

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