FOSS Trademarks are Probably OK

The protection that projects have from trademarks can often seem to be a weapon used to remove the freedom of hackers to change the source code and redistribute.

Examples include the Firefox trademark agreement, where Mozilla will not allow a re-distributor to call their package ‘Firefox’ unless all code has first gone upstream. This policy is used to make sure everybody get’s Mozilla’s Firefox and not someone else’s Firefox that they couldn’t control the quality for.

Then there is the example of Oracle’s “OpenOffice.org” trademark which, isn’t allowed to be used by anything other than the code from Oracle. And since the split of the Open Document Foundation has forced the creation of a new brand ‘LibreOffice’ so that the open source code can continue to be developed in the open.

The third example is the corporate control of brands. Canonical the company owns and controls the Ubuntu brand, whilst building a large community of volunteers to build that brand on their behalf. There are agreements in place which allow the Community Council some control over uses of the trademark in the community and the general balance between community interest and corporate control is struck. Some may agree and other vehemently oppose this arrangement, but in all it’s about strong control over the brand name.

Trademarks exist to ensure that the trust we have in the quality and source of our real world products is assured within a given area and within a given industry. These limitations allow for names to be reused in other industries and other areas where the products wouldn’t be confused anyway.

So in essence, if free software projects want to maintain the trust of their users and maintain the trust of their distribution, then we need to utilise trademarks or something like trademarks to do it. Whether we use product trademarks or organisational trademarks such as ‘Firefox by Debian’ vs ‘Firefox by Mozilla’ is up for some debate.

Overall, my feelings on the matter of trademark use in Free and Open Source projects is that they are probably, currently, a slight positive in effect. You may disagree, please comment if you do or even if you don’t.

Ubuntu’s Non-Free Parabox

Our venerable friend Jono Bacon has posted an interesting blog post concerning the outcome of the bug to enable the nonfree installation of Flash on Ubuntu. It would have manifested itself in the installer, by having the nonfree checkbox switch on by default.

  1. The problem: We can not have what we want in the default install.
  2. The current solution: Provide a set of proxy packages which can install the functionality after the installation, moving the liability and problems from Canonical to the user.
  3. The problem with the current solution: It requires manual user interaction.
  4. Problem with checkbox solution: It’s against Ubuntu policy and the Technical Board Voted it down.

I’m a big proponent of “nonfree offsetting” (few people are, but I’m sticking to my guns); If Canonical wants to ship nonfree Flash instead of almost fully working GNU Gnash, then they should be willing to offset their balance with adequate investment into the free software alternative; i.e. they should be putting money into Gnash.

It’s funny because I was talking to Rob Savoye, winner of this year’s free software award, at LibrePlanet 2011. Overcoming the technical barriers to finishing Flash 10 support in Gnash, now that there is good documentation from Adobe, is so close. But the only businesses investing in Gnash are embedded systems; systems who need a Flash player to work on ARM and other architectures. Red Hat isn’t one of them, neither is Canonical, and I tire of not hearing from these companies on why they can’t invest more into solving these issues with an economic nudge.

Even if you don’t want to give the money to Rob, then send in your own engineers to get the job done!

Back to Jono: his position is that this issue is down to design. In his world view, installing nonfree Flash is required, it’s the only option and the one that we offer when you install Ubuntu; let’s assume that’s right for a moment. He’s asking designers to mull over how to achieve the right kind of communication to users to encourage them to click on the checkbox: This in itself is a policy paradox.

Anything we do to encourage users to install nonfree, nonessential components, is simply against the Ubuntu policy of shipping free software and encouraging its use. It’s hard to claim that this is a balance of free vs. nonfree with a straight face when your stated aim is to encourage users to install nonfree components.

In the comments to the blog post there are some very good responses from Alan Bell and ethana2, but there are also some comments from users who I think are more pro-compromise then they are pro-free-software. An example from Cleggton (I don’t mean to pick on you personally Cleggton, you’re just the easiest to quote):

If we take philosophy out of the argument for a second, then it seems clear that the users who care whether they are non-free, patent questionable etc are the ones that are most able and informed to uncheck a checkbox. And the ones that aren’t aware of the difference are our new users, who need YouTube just to work out of the box, lets make it work and then lets educate them later.

I hear this kind of appeasement argument an awful lot. Users don’t care (so we’re told) and free software is too hard to achieve. Not everyone of our users is going to care, especially when we so rarely tell them about free and open source software and it’s practical ramifications to them personally. But even that doesn’t make it irrelevant. Our users expect us to care about the things that will benefit them. In fact they expect us to care for them with careful policies. Even if polices get in the way of jam today; they’re there to make sure there’s jam tomorrow and users trust us to make those calls on their behalf.

Besides, you know what your mother always said about getting your own way without putting any work in: It trivialises the issues involved and waylays expectations and the reality of our situation. Then it’s much easier to ignore real solutions like spending the time creating free software and instead continue to make excuses on why we should keep the toxic workarounds like the nonfree Flash player in our ecosystem.

What are your thoughts?

Manage Your Code with Philosophy

I had this idea for a diagram from maco, we were talking about Religion and got to discussing this. I wanted to explain it and I was being casual. But take a look at my diagram and you’ll see there is a very strong pattern which is used for both resolving idealogical conflicts and resolving code/patch conflicts.

And just as we as programmers need access to lots of good and bad code to build our skills and patterns of how to program in the best way. We as human beings need to experience lots of thoughts, feelings, cultures and conflicts in order to build wisdom and insight in our human problem solving.

What are your thoughts?

If it sounds mad

I’ve just been reading Glyn Moody’s article on the defence of hackers and open source. And no doubt I fully disagree with any notion that Free and Open Source is as relatable to some mass anarchistic insensible process.

I thought to myself that there probably is a quick test to see if what someone is saying about open source makes sense. A quick and dirty litmus test for checking if the author understands open source in principle and in practice.

If you replace “Open Source” with the word “Science” and set the date of the article or book back to 1650, does it sound like it’s totally mad?1 If you replace “Open Content” with “Free Speech”, does it sound like the author is grasping for a way to put people back in their nice Aristotelian place?

What I see when I read articles and books that attack free culture, is a mind on the other end of the text trying to work a messy and human process into an authoritarian view of the world (nice, ordered, predicable systems). I actually boil this down to a lack of trust in humanity and messiness. Which is a shame, because biological evolution is a messy system with lots of “waste”2 and human dialectics is a messy system with a lot of “waste” (what some call a long tail of content quality) and yet they’ve both produced amazing results3.

This is why it’s right that new ideas in Ubuntu should be tried, but at the same time a critical eye be placed over the results. Because it’s only through trying things out that we learn if they work at all. Even in design, where most designers would claim to be self supporting machines of innovation, I believe it’s natural to have a certain amount of trial and error. Of course having the space and energy to carry out the chaotic research is important, something we work on to improve in the open source design world.

But trying things does take a lot of energy and this is where the efficiency gains of open source are most important. We don’t know which of the thousands of programs are going to be the best, but we do know that at every stage there is the opportunity to share gains and pick up where others have left off. Truly standing on the shoulders of giants that came before us allows us to be usefully “wasteful”.

Far from Free and Open Source being a constraint on innovation, I find more and more that it is the source of innovation and what we really need more of is a way to execute on good ideas rather than the old tired thinking that we just don’t have any good ideas.

What are your thoughts?

1 I admit that this does require some association of the method of creating practical mechanical designs (software) with the methods of creating testable theoretical models as in science. I’ve had very long emails in this discussion, but I’m still fairly confident that it’s equatable in it’s requirement for open sharing of ideas and designs.
2 The waste is not waste in my view, it’s navigation.
3 I’m a big fan of the idea that the classic view of innovation is rubbish and the only truly new ideas are just convenient mistakes. All other ideas are dialectic compositions and so “innovation” in my view is more about mixing existing ideas and good innovators are good mixers.

Why we need Free Software ‘holes’

Rachel Botsman made a really impressive TedTalk where she talks about consumption, more importantly about how as a society we should use our ‘stuff’ more effectively by sharing it or bartering it more.

What really stuck in my mind was the phrase “What you need isn’t a drill that you buy and use once or twice, what you need is a hole”

And it’s true, what we don’t need is software, what we need is the product that software gives us. But if that’s the case and the product is the most important part, why should anyone care about Free Software? After all, Free Software doesn’t always get you the better result, it certainly didn’t 10 years ago.

I rationalise Free and Open Source as a forward thinking politic. One where governments neglected their duty to protect the commons and the products of the public sphere. Instead FOSS is where clever people, have created legal strategies in order to artificially create an environment, where sharing and collaboration can really take place with the required legal protection they need to not be abused.

The worst thing that you can do if you need a hole, is to hire out the same drill from the one and only drill making company that charges you $300 a time, never sells their product, bribes and have the law protect their monopoly from users making their own. The better long term strategy is to always have a drill in common with others (or other hole making device) and to have it set up in such a way as to allow unfettered access as well as shared responsibility to it’s upkeep.

The lessons I learned are as a developer, I need to keep the user’s requirement (hole) in mind, and not what amazing software I can build (drill). That’s a design focus which I will try and hold close and I’m glad is becoming more accepted in the admittedly drill focused culture in foss.

As a user I’m made more aware of my responsibility as a participant in the greater commons to help maintain and grow the bank of software we have available to all and not just my opportunity.

What are your thoughts?

Secular Distributism; Moral Absolutes

I’ve been keeping a curious tab on the Distributionist’s Review which is a news blog with the focused aim of distributing the ideas of the easry 20th Century catholic philosopher G. K. Chesterton called Distributionism.

I’ve talked before about how the system of thought surrounding the old distrobutism has remarkable similarities to Free and Open Source models and I’m not the only one to think so. But in this blog entry I’d like to outline where I fundamentally disagree with a lot of distrobutionists: Religion and absolute Morality.

As a good apathist I’m not keen on god. By not keen I mean to say I think it’s a brain disease, a mental disorder which poisons reason and is the resting place of unfounded faith and the denial of evidence. The undoing of self understanding and in an attempt to explain the outside world with inside your head data really misses the point of philosophy.

OK so now I’ve made it clear that I’m not a supporter of religion or gods (whether they exist or not I don’t care), the one thing about the Distrobutionist’s review that sticks in my craw is the way there is often a forced joining of moral thinking, religious fundamentalism and economic process.

It’s true that many factors of economics do need to include morality, but morality isn’t absolute, you can find yourself in a position of having to commit immoral acts by virtue of being stuck between decisions which are all immoral, all cause suffering and in these cases I will have to apply the same underlying personalisation of moral responsibility which governs the rest of the distrobutionist philosophy.

Take abortion, which is far harder a topic than contraception which I consider to be perfectly solved, it is a hard question because the assessment of what is life, what is murder and what is suffering give us a negative sum game. No matter what you do, you loose. I’m happier giving this question over to the people and person who will ultimately loose from the decision: the mother. they are the ones who must make the decision because child-in-potentia is their responsibility, not the state’s. But why should the state not punish the murderer after the act?

So long as the state can’t take responsibility for a life immediately, it has no business being a moral authority. Take an extreme case; if a child born can not be looked after by the mother animal and there is no society to take responsibility then it’s very hard to force the mother animal to have a morality that respects the sanctity of life and at the same time rejects the suffering of life; often nature has right the answer where excessive stress in a mother will cause them to kill their children (and possibly eat them).

But where would religions possibly find footing in this apparent abhorrent behaviour? Often this is summed up by the quip about American Calthics: “the foetus is precious, the mother is sinful and the born child is a nuisance to be ignored”. Basically that religions concern themselves will unrealistic absolutes like “life for everyone” without considering the resulting suffering that it causes. This perhaps why my own morality is based on suffering and not on life, to me it’s quite possible for “Thou shall not kill” to become immoral in rare instances.

And besides we can’t very well go around convicting mothers on a morality which is based on their own internal responsibility, it’s not societies place to force individuals into responsibility and suffering. Of course the question then becomes; well how can you support society helping abortion with medical practice?

Another hard question but I put it like this, the mother after careful consideration has requested the help of their community to both help with the consideration and help with the safe medical procedure that will ensure a minimisation of suffering. In this way the community can be more sure the decision was not made lightly and the mother can be sure of not dying from the procedure. Surely this must be the most balanced approach for both women and community.

To the conclusion.

Plenty of anarchists would suggest that as well as being economically distributed an ideal society must also be morally distributed. This might be a little extreme for most who need the reliability and security of a normalised legal morality with which to work from and with other people around them. So a rejection of a moral consensus is not really the way to go.

But I would argue that when considering how your moral consensus ties together with your ideal world view about economic distrobutism, that you must consider it to be an under-developed philosophy and not as many Catholics see it; an absolute perfection delivered by god. Because unquestioning religious dogma has no place in a truly compassionate, thoughtful and moral world view.

Your thoughts?

Is open siege under sourced? Let’s not hope!

An excellent post by txwikinger on his blog called Is open source under siege? Let’s hope not! paints a picture of all the recent movements in the business world which seem to undermine free and open source in economics (withdrawal of support) and in philosophical backing (maybe working together isn’t good?).

When it comes to the ideas surrounding free and open source, the commons and free culture in general we have to remember that our cultural values are subject to dialectic interpretation as much as any set of ideas. Our main mooring has been the sometimes radical and always socially objectionable Free Software community who has been very strong on purpose and clear on what it considers to be for and against the free software ideal.

This I think has allowed us to be protected in a lot of ways from being swept away by dialectic diffusion; where your ideas mix up so much with other people’s that identifying the core values become impossible. The gentle sound of the waves of free culture crashing against the seemingly impossibly immovable shore of commercial reality has over time not changed radically commercial reality, but the shape of commercial advantage and where there is easy and attractive exploitable resources.

It’s not a surprise to me that as the impending beat of market forces in conjunction with the reality of software and all soft media increases in tempo, the fear of the old world companies is leading them to seek even more government protection. Every governmentally supported artificial barrier conceivable is being employed by the biggest and most well resourced organisations to try and keep a status quo that can not be.

To conclude I would say that the free and open source ideas are changing the world, they are as well being changed as you’d expect. Sometimes for the better and sometimes in ill advised ways that should be rejected by everyone who wants to keep their free software ideals. The proprietary companies and people who think as they do that protectionism and government monopolies are better than the free market will struggle something fierce while they either morph or die into something survivable.

Remember your concern over what Microsoft, Apple and Oracle are doing is nothing but a fraction of the fear and dread that they have over a real open free market in software and the work we all do to hasten it.

Hold on Tight to Principles

I wanted to take this comment I made in an email and post it to my blog. I’m fairly principled and I try my best with all sorts of things. There is something about principles which I think is not well understood and I’d like to offer a tentative explanation:

Principles are a view of the world which can be seen to be idealistic, they are in their nature the very way in which given the way you understand the world to work you could see things being made better and more ideal. Ideals are not always practical, you have to deal with real world issues that are not ideal.

Practicalism isn’t a principle, it’s the ways real world problems can be solved. You use your principles to weigh up the cost of actions that solve the problem. You do _not_ replace your principles wholesale with a view that cheapens and makes light of principles in general but instead use them to dialectically make new and creative solutions to the problems.

Free and Open Source as a principle: It’s both a long term practical benefit (investment) and a universal social good which respects users and brings down the cost of computer software development. I would say that FOSS is one of those unique common sense type principles that have immediate and far reaching effects. The difficulty with spreading the ideas and philosophies are not due to the general public not being able to understand, but instead relate to how tightly vested interests hold onto their own principles about the appropriateness of their product’s terms.

All these things have cultural and political consequences in my view. You don’t have to be a raving supporter or a crazy Ubuntu advocate. I think just being more aware of exactly what the proposition is and why proprietary software is very costly and not worth your time would be very valuable in bringing about a cultural shift.

Thank you for reading my ramble, what are your thoughts? Am I talking out of my hat again? Should I be less concerned with the adoption of practicalism as a principle?

Secular Commandments

I got indignant at the popes suggestion that atheists (he really means secularists) are a threat to moral society. Oh sure, he just compared secularism with the German Christian Socialist movement of the 1930s. It’s not like he was trying to suggest that these Nazi people were atheists and therefore immoral… no wait that’s exactly what he was trying to suggest and attempting to rewrite history in order to do it.

Typical mythology that gods bring morals and to lack faith is to lack morals. “Plato voiced it best in Euthyphro – is that which is pious what is beloved by the gods, or is it beloved by the gods because it is pious?”

Here is some secular commandments.