May 2, 2003

Slap the credits everywhere!

- by Hans Reiser -
Free software is ego-propelled. People don't get paid, they get
famous. Yet we as a community do far too little to prominently credit the names of the authors. I propose we change that by adopting a few simple practices.

Free software is like radio and broadcast television -- easily accessible and available to anyone who wants it. As software programming gets to be as big as entertainment programming, it begins to copy it in other ways. We should consciously pick which of those ways we want and as a community create taboos to enforce them now before we drift into bad habits that take become de facto rules.

Do we want free software projects to be as well-funded as soap operas?
It would be nice if it were so.

Do we want ads inserted into people's screen backgrounds suggesting
they lose weight and look stylish by smoking Camels? I think not.

Do we want people to know the names of the authors of all of the
software that they frequently use? Sure -- it would result in
more and harder-working authors.

I propose that we as a community insist that all
distros make the default screensaver be one that randomly displays a
different detailed credit for one of the authors of Linux software
every 60 seconds. I propose that we insist the default
splash screen for booting also display a random detailed credit
describing the software one of the authors wrote.

I think we should make this crediting of authors a license requirement for our free software. Why is it necessary to make it a license requirement? Won't everyone
just go along with it if it is a good idea?

If you think that, you have not met many marketeers in suits. To a marketeer, consumer awareness is money, and there is no reason why anybody but their company should have any. Their job is to ensure that they get the highest possible fraction of consumer awareness.

Marketeers tightly control credits on their products so that only the company gets credit on anything they can control. This is why distros install splash screens with their name and no one else's on them into kernels they mostly did not write. The splash screens serve
the purpose of emphasizing their brand name and obscuring everyone
else's. A very minor reason, but the only one they speak of publicly,
is that it obscures information average users don't understand with a
nice graphic by a third-rate corporate artist. (Anyone else think we
ought to have an open art contest for that boot splash screen?)

This is why distros drop the K from all the KDE programs: somebody
else is trying to establish a brand name, and that is a market threat
they want to cut off. This is why they change the user interface of desktops they didn't write to display their logo instead of the desktop authors' logos.

Using the work of others without giving them credit is plagiarism. Academia has long had in place mechanisms for dealing with plagiarism and other failures to attribute. In academia, authors' work is examined by an independent review board before publication. If you don't attribute,
your reviewers laugh at you, you have to add the attribution, and you
might not get published at all if the error was not an honest one.
There is a constant continuing struggle to catch failures to
attribute, but the social mechanism is in place and fairly effective.

By contrast, with free software publishing, the distros -- and appliance vendors --
determine the proper share of the credit. Because the distros have a vested interest in their brand, they don't even bother to try to give appropriate credit to the creative talent, let alone the people and companies that fund the work.
Perhaps you think that those who contribute only money should get less mention than
those contributing code? I disagree. Have you ever worked a day job to fund other coders? Pure hell, let me tell you, especially if you are also so
essential that time off becomes unacceptable.
Money is unimportant only to those who don't work to create it.

Steps in the right direction

This proposal is just the first round of struggle over this issue. There are going to be lots of issues to solve in the details of how authors ensure that their credits are not stripped out of their work.

For instance, how do you define what is fair crediting if there are
many authors? What if you don't agree with someone's assessment of what is their fair share of the credits? Do you either suffer with it or do without their software? This is not a new problem -- or don't you think actors argue over the size of their
name on the screen?

At some point we'll need an arbitrator to solve these disputes. At first, this will probably be the original author, but since the original author is not disinterested, it will eventually need to be someone else. Original authors who name their software after themselves (ahem) have an advantage as an arbitrator of credits in that it is easier for them to worry less about their presence in the rest of the credits. (I encourage more people to do as Linus and I have done.
It is mostly the guys working for me who need the kind of mention I'm suggesting if they are to get their deserved due. Naming software is the best possible way to credit authors. Look for pieces of reiserfs to acquire
programmer names in the future.)

The Free Software Foundation has finally begun to do something about giving proper credit. As a prelude to V3 of the GPL, the Free Software Foundation has moved to the GNU Free Documentation License. The GFDL allows authors to make their credits or their political statements irremovable.

That's a step in the right direction, but
what about making the credits visible? It seems V3 of the GPL only protects
credits in the source code, and does nothing to guarantee that users
actually see the credits of the authors instead of the
credits of the marketeers. In other words, it is 99% irrelevant. Fewer than 100 people have read the source code to
reiserfs, and while those 100 are important, they aren't as
important as 99% of the public. Nobody responsible for deciding
whether to sponsor us has ever read the source code that I know of.

Protecting credits only in the source is inadequate. If you agree, perhaps you can help me influence V3's authors to
provide relevant protection from plagiarism. If that doesn't happen,
I will try to convince the community that we need to move to an
anti-plagiarism license instead.

Unfortunately there are those who don't want their software burdened with even credit for the authors. Debian, for instance, seems to be leading the resistance to the GFDL. But maybe this is a burden we should shoulder if we want better software. What do you think?

I would love to see an arbitrator determine who gets what
mention on the outside of GNU/Linux distribution boxes. When Richard Stallman isn't
even mentioned on the box as an author because doing so does not further the
mindshare capture effort of the distro, well, this is just wrong. I
don't have to agree with Stallman's socio-economics to abhor seeing
his voice obscured by suits who don't equal his contribution in code
and leadership. I hope you agree with me.

Hans Reiser is architect of the Reiser filesystem and founder of namesys.


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