May 10, 2004

OS conference endures PowerPoint requirement on Day 1

Author: David 'cdlu' Graham

TORONTO -- The University of Toronto's Knowledge Media Design Institute Open Source conference opened Sunday with a three-hour session on Free and Open Source Software as a social movement, with Brian Behlendorf of the Apache Project leading it off.

Behlendorf, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh of the FLOSS project, and Eben Moglen, legal counsel for the Free Software Foundation, discussed their views and experiences on the social movement that we know as the F/OSS movement.

During the period, each speaker gave his remarks and then took questions, and at the end all three took questions together.

PowerPoint was required

Behlendorf led off with a comment that he is not used to PowerPoint -- the presentation software of choice for the conference, which is running Windows XP -- and apologized in advance if the PowerPoint requirement caused him to slip up, because he said he is used to the OpenOffice.org variant of the software.

From the early adoption of the Internet came two things: open standards through the Internet Engineering Task Force (the IETF), and the fundamental idea of a decentralized network.

In the model of the Internet we use, anyone or anything can connect to it, and if packets are sent, they are routed. If a particular node on the Internet is causing problems it is up to other nodes to ignore it.

The same basic concept can be applied to both democracy and the free software movement as a whole. In a free software project, Behlendorf argued, anyone can contribute regardless of the letters -- or lack thereof -- after their name or their life experience. If what they say is productive, they'll be listened to, and if not, they'll be ignored.

The IETF, he said, has a basic philosophy for applying standards. It is not necessarily when everyone sitting around agrees that the standard makes sense, but when two independent implementations of a proposed standard are made -- and are capable of interoperating with each other -- that a standard is born.

Behlendorf's specific experience comes from his background with the Apache project. Apache, he told the audience, was founded on top of the NCSA Web server code which was licensed as what amounted to public domain -- with credit. Eight developers wanted to combine their patches for the NCSA Web server together; thus Apache's name (apache = A Patchy Web server). More to the point, part of the motivation for Apache's creation was the desire to ensure the IETF's HTTP standard was maintained and not altered or made irrelevant by a single company's control of both the dominant server and the dominant client -- at that time, Netscape.

No forking the code

Apache's developers wanted to keep the project free -- no cost, and the right to fork the code were critical to their aims.

As a new way of seeing it, Behlendorf suggested that students will start to see open source as a massive "Global Software University." He suggested that more companies will use "You can write open source code here" as a recruiting and retaining tool, and he believes non-technological causes will use an increasing amount of open source, all resulting in expanded use and adoption.

Rishab took over when Behlendorf was done and started his presentation on the FLOSS project. FLOSS refers to the term Free/Libre and Open Source Software, where the Libre attempts to address the English term "Free" which in many language is split into two words -- roughly, free (beer), and liberty (libre).

The FLOSS project ran a number of surveys of developers recently in an effort to better understand the motivations behind the work they do.

Of the approximately 2,800 European, 1,500 American, and 650 Japanese developers the project surveyed, 78 percent expect to gain from the sharing of knowledge, while 32 percent say they want their contribution respected. Among dozens of other statistics was the interesting number that 45 percent of the developers identified themselves as "Free Software" developers while only 27 percent identified themselves as "open source" developers.

He went on to give a relative comparison of costs of proprietary software in third world countries. In the U.S., he said, Windows XP and Microsoft Office cost together about $560. In the U.S., it amounts to a small amount of the country's per capita GDP -- i.e., how much the average person makes in a year.

In Brazil, however, as a comparative example, the average annual income in the country is $2,915, meaning it would cost about 2.5 months of all a person's income to buy Windows XP and Microsoft Office. To translate that back into U.S. dollars relative to the annual income it would amount to over $6,000 for Americans to buy that software.

FLOSS, he said, helps developers gain skills in many areas, including coding, teamwork, team management, and copyright law. The result is that FLOSS development helps its developers get employment. Many developers join FLOSS development in order to improve their skills, further improving their employability, and most of them continue on to continue improving their skills.

Thirty-six percent of all companies that responded agreed somewhat to strongly with the statement that their employees could write open source software on company time. Sixteen percent of companies that were not in the technology field directly had that response.

HTML inherently open source

The Internet, he said, going down a new topic, took off when the people using it were not only programmers but artists and people in the general population who began sharing their content on the Internet. In order to do it, they looked at existing Web pages, modified them, and posted their own. HTML became an incidental expression of widespread open source -- it is an inherently open source language.

Open source allows countries to inexpensively train its citizens in technology and technology development, ultimately allowing them to escape from the model of vendor-provided black box software.

As an example, he cited the Spanish province of Extremadura, the poorest region in Spain, lacking any decent transport infrastructure and being a largely agricultural region.

With the European Union's consolidation and the liberalization of its telecommunications laws, the possibility of universal access to such basic services as telephones being lost became real and it became necessary to bring the region into the modern world in short order.

A community Internet access centre was set up in every village with 2mbps speeds. Libraries were there or set up in every village and a goal of a computer for every two students was set and achieved with the help of 70,000 Line -- Spain's in-house distribution of Linux -- computers.

Digital literacy training was offered to everyone from housewives to the retired and unemployed. About 78,000 people have been trained up to date.

Asked if off-shoring was a threat to open source, he responded that no, off-shoring is to save money. If you're not paying people, you will be not paying them just as much here as in India.

Moglen spoke next. He is a charismatic speaker with a lot to say, but as another speaker later pointed out, some of what he says is rhetoric.

Speaking on behalf of the conspiracy

He started off by announcing that he was there to speak "on behalf of the conspiracy." The history of freedom, he said, is a history of conflict between those who want freedom and those who benefit by depriving them of their freedom.

In order for freedom to prevail, we have to, as a society, get passed being willing to accept the deprivation of freedom for profit.

Richard M. Stallman started his movement, Eben said, in 1982. Twenty-two years later, his movement is still strong and getting stronger. By contrast, 22 years after the French revolution, Napoleon was attacking France's neighbors to impose their newfound freedoms on the other countries of Europe -- much in the way, he commented, that the U.S. is bringing freedom to the people of Iraq.

With software being free, and hardware being very cheap, Eben identified the next big battle for freedom as being bandwidth. The right, he said, to trade data is the next battleground, and it will involve opening wireless frequencies up for use in ISP-independent networks and so forth.

Appliances that depend on Free Software are meant to include the code. The responsibilities of appliance manufacturers will be more clearly laid out in the next version of the General Public License, version 3, upon which work is starting.

GPL version 2 was released in 1991 by Stallman rather unilaterally. Eben described that as what was appropriate for the time but said future release of the GPL such as the in-progress version 3 will not be done the same way. An open process is to be established to write and adopt GPL 3.

He closed by describing the Free Software movement as being irrelevant to business, but as being a fight for civil liberties as they relate to software.

The afternoon session saw a series of speakers with discussions of varying lengths speak about the legal and political issues of open source.

Empowering the mission through knowledge

Graham Todd led off the afternoon with a discussion of the Canadian Government's International Development Research Centre, a Crown Corporation whose mission is not aid specifically, but research in Third World countries. The mission is empowerment through knowledge. He told us that his goal in attending the conference was not to speak about open source but to learn from the people there what he can take back to IDRC Canada and use in their research.

David McGowan of the University of Minnesota Law School went next declaring in words borrowed from an essay from Eben Moglen himself as a copyright and IP droid, neutral in the battle between open and proprietary software. His interest is in software that works for what he wants to do, and whoever provides it is fine with him.

To call free software freedom, he said, must mean that licensing is slavery. Free software, he said, is full of rhetoric. He cited Moglen's speech's tone as much as its content in this assertion.

SCO, he said, is making ridiculous claims from a legal perspective. From the GPL's unconstitutionality to its being preempted by U.S. laws, the facts just don't carry it. It is rhetoric on SCO's part designed to be no more than just that -- rhetoric. And it is no more rhetorical than the open source and Free Software side's rhetoric in the ongoing battle between them and SCO.

What is the GPL, he asked pointedly. The GPL is, he answered, unilateral permission to use code. It is not a contract.

The explicit lack of a warranty, among other things, provides a condition on the permission, and from there the GPL's interpretation in various legal jurisdictions simply becomes fuzzy.

Is the GPL terminable? Not really, but if someone with rights pulls out of software development that is under the GPL, that can cause problems.

Is the GPL a license or a trademark? He pointed out that while the GPL is written as and presented as a license; it is used more as a trade or certification mark. As an example, he said that 72 percent of all projects on SourceForge.net are released under the GPL. Did every one of those projects think through the decision to use the GPL? Or did some of them use it because it is a qualifier as free software, not for the specific terms of the license. Is it, he asked, a license, or is it a manifesto?

Whose GPL is it, anyway?

Whose GPL is it? To all appearances, he pointed out, the GPL is a creature of and a part of the Free Software Foundation. Is it everyone's or FSF's? The answer is resoundingly the FSF's.

How many GPLs are there? He pointed out that the GPL applies to anyone modifying or distributing the GPL, and that the GPL must be passed on. To users just using, the GPL is essentially irrelevant. As such, there are two classes of GPL licensees.

Food for thought, anyway.

Barry Sookman then took over. He's from the Technology, Communications, and Intellectual Property Group, McCarthy and Tétreault. His take on the GPL is that it doesn't behave the same in every country.

In the U.S., copyright is right in the constitution, whereas in, for example, Canadian law, the whole philosophy of copyright is different. The only purpose of copyright in Canada is to benefit all forms of authors and creators of art. According to a Privy Council (essentially the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth) ruling in 1923, copyright law stems from the Bible's 8th commandment: Thou Shalt Not Steal.

In deciding what to protect under copyright law, the basic principal that anything that is worth copying is worth protecting is used.

Without going into too many details, his argument is that with the different histories and interpretations and case laws in various countries, the legal interpretation of the GPL can vary wildly and it will apply differently depending on the country.

Broader participation needed

Drazen Pantic of OpenNet, Location One, and NYU Center for War, Peace & News Media, compared the nature of proprietary software to broadcast-only media. Neither, he said, is inherently trustworthy, yet both depend on being trusted. For progress to be made and freedoms to be gained, there needs to be a broader participation -- the user of software and the reader or viewer of news must become a part of the development or broadcast.

With opportunities to comment at the end, Moglen pointed out that a concern brought up about what happens to GPLed software after it becomes part of the public domain was irrelevant for all practical purposes as under current US law copyrighted works become part of the public domain 70 years after the death of the individual or company that created it.

Ultimately, the first day of the conference worked out well. All the speakers spoke in one large room and the sessions were long enough that there did not need to be a feeling of urgency for one to end so people could get to the next one. I look forward to Day 2.

Category:

  • Linux
Click Here!