Understanding Project Harmony

I’ve been highly critical1 of corporate copyright assignment policies, especially those that effect me personally. Canonical, one of those I’ve complained about, has been working to try and standardise the wording and formation of the contracts that you have to sign in order to assign copyright over.

This is called Project Harmony and it kicked off today an alpha release, which we can get involved with and try and fix and bug report.

To be fair to the process (and in hope that it can fix Canonical’s current utterly ghastly wording) I’ve put together a diagram so you can understand what the options are in the new alpha contract:

What is interesting is that while diagramming2 , I could see the difference between the FSF’s3 assignment agreement (2.1 > iv) and Canonical current agreement (2.2 > v) and they do show up in stark contrast.

What are your thoughts on this project? Will it improve the situation with contributing to Canonical’s Unity, Mozilla’s Firefox or even the FSF’s Gnu project?

1I’ve likened it to corporate theft, misappropriation of volunteer work and powerful coercion from the project maintainers project’s coherence. Similar to an optional serfdom.
2This isn’t a legal diagram, just an illustration to aid comprehension. I am not a lawyer, please check with your legal council on these matters.
3Interestingly I’ve just signed two FSF copyright assignment forms, hopefully I’ll be able to blog about what I’ve been up to with them soon.

Free Culture Posters, Get Them Here

To celebrate the release of revision 16 of my Free Culture Tabloid sided poster, I’ve put together each section into it’s own US letter poster so that a multi-poster display can be created using all of the pieces.

Do you like the edits that have gone into each revision? Is the wording easy to understand and direct enough for public consumption? Please give me your thoughts in the comments below.

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?

Post-Open Source, Why Web and Mobile aren’t

I was just reading the interesting article by Glyn Moody about how Mobile apps and the Web are reducing the opportunity for Free and Open Source to take off, right at the time when it should have the biggest basis for doing so.

What’s interesting is that this is another stage in the tragic commons merry-go-round; where publicly minded, forward thinking people set about creating a new ecosystem where ideas can be shared. So impressively more efficient and free to all is the commons that some people come in who use the now free ecosystem to build upon it, by extension the next generation of proprietary garbage that has to be fought away by the next generation of publicly minded people.

We’ve seen it once before when the computer world, which became an open platform, suddenly developed a whole host of parasitic monopoly companies that based their entire closed platforms on top of the older system. And that wasn’t the first time this happened either.

So now we have open source taking the world by storm. Except of course that it’s now undergoing an interesting shift, instead of the cultural shift from passive consumers to active participants; we instead see a new layer of companies who take advantage of the free ecosystem provided to build a new propritary, closed and wholly controlled market for themselves.

Both the Web and Mobile ecosystems are built on open source. Mobile may have a couple of old world encrusted barnacles, but almost all of these platforms are only possible thanks to the ecosystems they’re built upon. Of course they’re also not interested in being a part of creating a new free ecosystem, just a new proprietary one.

Perhaps this is the way it goes, perhaps in 10 years time we’ll be digging ourselves out of this mess to be told that some company is investing a new proprietary system based on open source mobile and open source server code.

Your thoughts?

Video: Why Free Software Matters

This is my response to some very good comments on my last video entry which I felt should be addressed with another vlog entry.

I’ve attempted to explain why Free Software is politically important, as much as open source is important to creators; we must be supportive of Free Software for user reasons and not just consider our own hacker culture issues.

Video Problems: Go directly to the video on blip.tv here and download the source mp4 here.

Personal: The reason for begging your indulgence with the video blogs is that I’m inspired to practice my speaking skills in order to further eliminate my stammer. From a young age I was bullied and called names and I have gotten much better since, but seeing The Kings Speech really brought it all back for me.

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?

A single fear to ruin them all…

A post by Bradford White as reported by LXer has a fear that the new AppStream project will create a mono culture which makes everything boring and everything a corporate decision.

I wanted to make a post about my thoughts on three separate issues raised in Bradford’s post, some of which I think were raised unintentionally.

We must fight consolidation!

When industries consolidate, we, the consumer of these industries products loose out. The reduced competition in the market place causes inevitable rises in prices and eventually leads to monopoly situations. So, the theory goes, if in my gut I need to fight off consolidation, then I must be fair and fight any attempt to unify the code used for Linux/FreeDesktops.

The problem with this sentiment is that it’s wrong. When an industry consolidates it’s combining production and reducing market sellers. When multiple system distributions opt to use the same package management software, they are adopting a standard. In fact for free and open source this is more a kin to another industry deciding to take up a mechanical free and industry agreed standard.

Fear not! Consolidation of standards, formats and free software code bases is a good thing and should almost always be welcomed.

But We Should Hate Corporate Interests Right?!

The anti-corporate movement is another reflection of the modern age of corporate abuse and government corruption. But I think it’s application in free software is misguided and worse a distraction. So long as the code and projects being worked on by any corporation (Red Hat and Canonical included) are free software. I don’t think their interests are anything more than a much more honest reflection of their economic situation involving a complex dynamic between their investment stratedgies and their customer’s demands.

More important is to pay attention to where free software is being contorted. I speak of course of closed project development practices (android), required code assignment (ayatana, unity) and branding and platform control (Canonical/Ubuntu). These things are normal done for honest enough reasons, but of course that’s why we have to speak up when they’re implemented in ways that harm the free software ecosystem and culture. They’re most certainly wrong and we must work out ways to fix them without breaking the bugs they were brought in to fix. But then that gets you back to corporate interests…

But Making Things Easy Will Make Things Harder!

There is a growing backlash against the design movement from seasoned linux admins/users. The theory is that as development is funded and the funding is focusing most strongly on making things easier for the new users, that all the old tools and methods will be neglected as their economies fall apart.

I know some tools are rubbish in design and probably should be replaced. Things like find and gnupg are the extreme examples of inhuman interface design. But just because money is following design at the moment, doesn’t mean it isn’t also following functionality. The thing we have to be most aware of, is that in our free software ecosystem we’ve had an abundance of good functionality for so long, that the design has been neglected.

And besides, if there is enough people who want certain tools to exist and work in certain ways, then there will always be a distribution or tool-set providing just that set of functions in just that way. Our objective as geeks is to make sure we never loose the ability to form communities around those ideas.

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.

No Business Like Bad FOSS Business

In response to Bruce Byfield’s article on how We shouldn’t feel bad when businesses have no morals. I feel compelled to point out the flaw in his logic and hopefully add some sense to why moral outrage is the correct response to unscrupulous behaviour by companies.

It’s not a surprise when companies are inconsiderate/naughty/evil, but that doesn’t make what they do any less wrong and it doesn’t make a negative reaction any less justified. The most important thing to remember as a consumer is that your aversion to certain behaviours of others directly affects your willingness to engage in business with someone. To put it another way: What we think about a business being bad, effects their profit. Just ask BP or Toyota.

The purpose of a corporation is to fulfil all of it’s responsibilities. It’s responsibilities to it’s capital investors is to maximise the return on their capital investment through profits, but it’s responsibility to their employees is to pay them the contracted amount. Two conflicting responsibilities… and yet somehow companies manage to balance them.

To list just a few possibly conflicting responsibilities that all companies have: Shareholders to extract profits, employees to pay, business to continue, customers to serve, environment to maintain, suppliers to pay and even maintain, society to improve and government to appease. Here’s Bruce Schwartz doing a much better talk on why scruples are a good idea.

When a company hurts the FOSS ecosystem (in this case Novel), it’s neglecting it’s responsibility to maintain it’s suppliers, it’s hurting it’s relationship and ability to serve it’s customers and it’s endangering the continuation of it’s business. We don’t even need to bring in it’s possible legal responsibility to know that what Novel did was damaging and wrong. Yes I used the word ‘wrong’, because sometimes there is a right way and there is a wrong way to “maximise profits”.

Having a social responsibility shouldn’t be impossible for companies and we shouldn’t put up with companies that have the audacity to claim it isn’t their responsibility. Too often they hide behind “My responsibility is to the share holders” which is about as nonsensical as looking after sun, but not the earth.

If your business has short sighted, profit motivated share holders, my advice is to get rid of them as soon as possible. As a business owner you don’t have to take up extra responsibilities of having investors…. No wonder Canonical and Facebook don’t want to float on the stock market, I know I wouldn’t want to have share holders in the current ethical climate.

Your thoughts?

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?