LibrePlanet 2015 speaker on “Document Freedom Day” equivocates on software freedom?

LibrePlanet is an annual free software conference held in Boston, Massachusetts near the home of the Free Software Foundation. I watched a recording of the LibrePlanet 2015 talk on Document Freedom Day by Robinson Tryon and heard him present a false dichotomy about software freedom as well as non-critically endorsing the use of proprietary software during his response to someone asking about music score software (such as GNU LilyPond):

I think it would be great for students to be exposed to all kinds of software that are out there on the market today. Whether that’s going to be some proprietary alternatives or some free software. I think that if you give people a solid education, if you give them a solid grounding in a lot of different tools, I think predominately they’re gonna make decisions that we are happy with, that we’re excited about because they’re gonna express the same views we do. That, you know, why would we choose this thing that has reduced functionality, I can’t use it after I graduate, and they’ll say ‘This is ridiculous!’ and we wouldn’t have to make that point for them. But I think that at this time, we aren’t coupling our education, and our use of free or proprietary software, with that lesson.

Some of the teachers that I liked the most, that I enjoyed the most when I was in high school and college were the ones that taught life lessons about their time in the military or in political situations where their higher-up told them to do something that was totally ridiculous, or told them to do something that they couldn’t possibly accomplish. But the sort of lesson was: well, if you can get it done, you know, however you can get it done. Then everything will be okay; we don’t need to know how the sausage is made.

So I think it’s really important for us to actually be honest with students, to give them a full picture. I think it’s just as irresponsible for us to tell students ‘You should only use free software’ and that’s the whole message we give, as to say ‘You should just use Microsoft products’. If we want someone to use free software we need to talk to them about everything that’s out there and why we think free software is a good choice. And then let them make their own decision. Because that’s the whole point; it’s about freedom. And so I really hope that with music and with other tools, that if we provide an ecosystem, and if we get enough people interested, that yeah, we’re gonna see some adoption of notation software.

That’s not what the free software movement, Richard Stallman, or any Free Software Foundation article argues. Stallman is on record explaining at length exactly why non-free software is unethical. And when describing how education should be set up, he says (as recently as his 2015-03-21 keynote at the LibrePlanet 2015 conference) that students should only be allowed to bring free software to class because he doesn’t want children to learn not to share. “Moral education, education in citizenship” is critical, Stallman writes, “It’s not enough for a school to teach facts and skills, it has to teach the spirit of goodwill, the habit of helping others. Therefore, every class should have this rule: “Students, if you bring software to class, you may not keep it for yourself, you must share copies with the rest of the class, including the source code in case anyone here wants to learn. Because this class is a place where we share our knowledge. Therefore, bringing a proprietary program to class is not permitted.” The school must follow its own rule to set a good example. Therefore, the school must bring only free software to class, and share copies, including the source code, with anyone in the class that wants copies.”.

What we see in American schools is the opposite—proprietary software is unquestioningly installed and used without anyone teaching about software freedom, using free software (except maybe for a cost savings), or valuing software freedom for its own sake. Using free software to save on software licensing cost seems like a good goal if you measure success in terms of popularity. But popularity fades and is easily reversed by wealthy proprietors eager to use schools to introduce their proprietary software to students. This is what should get LibrePlanet speakers riled.

So where would anyone get the idea that the difficult choice we face is whether to teach exclusively free software without informing students of the unethical nature of non-free software, versus using only non-free software? I suspect this false dichotomy is the result of the philosophy of the open source movement. That movement doesn’t say non-free software is wrong. The open source movement was developed to placate businesses by pitching a developmental methodology which stresses convenience. Sometimes this means endorsing proprietary software. The FSF has written about the beginnings of the open source movement in a couple of essays (an older essay, a newer essay).

Software freedom is not about maximizing the number of software choices. Proponents of non-free software conflate choice with freedom because it gives them another opportunity to promote their non-free software even if they have to do that right along side free software, talking about the two together as if the two are ethically equivalent. This helps take ethics off the table for discussion and grants proprietors a chance to reframe any debate around technical convenience. The problem for users remains: One cannot gain or keep software freedom by using non-free software.

We shouldn’t look for ways out of teaching students what ills proprietary software brings society. We should not present all options as if they’re equally ethical and hope that people figure this out on their own (“let [students] make their own decision”, as Tryon put it). Moral education is critical and schools must do this. If we don’t teach people to value their freedom and fight for it we will lose our freedom. We know this is true from history with proprietary derivatives of non-copylefted free software, and we heard from Karen Sandler’s LibrePlanet 2015 conference closing speech that she was unsuccessful in trying to get VMWare to comply with the GNU General Public License (a license that grants software freedom to all users so long as they pass on that same freedom if they distribute the software further). As she said in her talk, one way you can help is by endorsing free software licenses that defend software freedom for derivative works (known as “copylefted” free software licenses like the GNU GPL):

We not only need financial help, we need your help as advocates. We need you to be going out and supporting enforcement. We need you to explain why copyleft is important, and why it matters. And we won’t be able to do it alone.

And most importantly, I think, seeing a public swell of support for the GPL and for copyleft, could even influence the lawsuit itself. You don’t know; by showing that the public cares about it, it escalates this issue to one of public importance.

Helping people understand the value of keeping their software freedom via copyleft requires teaching people to value software freedom for its own sake.

But just as free software lawyer Eben Moglen often points out in his talks, “Stallman was right”, Stallman had already written about so much of what came up:

Coca-Cola’s Fanta history is no “mistake”, corporations have propped up fascists for a long time

Sure, the following clip from the 2014-03-09 “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” was funny:

but this was no “mistake”, hardly “unintended”. Coca-Cola’s Fanta ad is the result of telling the truth about its ugly history. Furthermore, this ugliness is hardly new.

Corporations have long propped up governments that serve their interests including backing fascism. One of the best documentaries available, “The Corporation” reminds us:

See/download “The Corporation” in its entirety and get the 2-disc DVD which has lots of interview extras and commentary that are well worth your time.

Tips for speaking and recording lectures

I’ve watched a lot of conference videos on a lot of topics. Few lectures are recorded well and it doesn’t take much to greatly improve most recordings I’ve seen. Here are some tips for improving recordings of lectures.


If you’re speaking, here are some tips for you.

  • Know where the microphone is and which direction it is aiming because a lot of mics are very directional; turning your head away from the mic greatly reduces the microphone’s ability to accurately pick up your speech. You go from being heard to sounding like you’re mumbling from another room.

    Either wear a mic attached to your head that turns with you (such as an ear clip or head piece) or practice holding a portable microphone in front of your mouth even when you turn your head by turning your chest with your head. If the mic is stationary, practice pivoting around the head of the mic so you’re always speaking into the mic even when you’re not facing the same direction as the mic. This should allow you to look at the person to whom you are speaking while still being recorded by the mic.

  • Don’t gesticulate between the projector and the screen. Anyone standing in between the projector and screen gets in the way of the projection by casting a shadow on the screen. If the recording captures what’s projected instead of the feed coming from the your computer, your audience can’t read your slides. If the recording captures the video feed instead of the projection, those viewing the recording won’t see what you’re doing in front of the projection. Either way, your gesticulation means something you deem important enough to do is lost on some of your audience.

    Instead use your computer to highlight something on the screen as you talk. Use the computer to highlight something (via drag-and-drop or selecting interesting words and paragraphs). Structure your slides to focus on one point at a time. This approach will let you simultaneously draw the audience’s attention to something on-screen while speaking aloud to elaborate a point.

  • Enunciate your words, don’t mumble. Your audience chose to hear and see you, you should be heard and understood clearly.

    Practice speaking slowly in front of people unfamiliar with your talk. Ask them if they could understand what you said. You are more familiar with your name than anyone you’re speaking to so don’t rush through speaking your name.

  • Don’t poll the audience (“How many people here have used the BarFoo system?”, “Anyone already familiar with the Foobar programming language?”, “Who has visited my website?”). You should speak to an audience outside the room (ideally audiences you will never meet watching your recording later, including audiences seeing/hearing you after you’re dead). It’s too late to change your talk to suit a different audience. Clear thinking and clear explanations contain summaries of situations that convey how you understand the situation you’re about to elaborate upon.

    If you need to speak to a particular audience instead of a general audience, make sure the lecture description contains expected prerequisites.

  • Are you taking questions from the audience? Repeat each question before you answer each question so the recording (the most important audience) understands the context of your response and everyone listening to you understands what you got out of the question.
  • Consider not using slides because they distract the audience away from what you’re saying and because you probably have too many slides which are hard to read or contain too much information for anyone to remember.

Event organizers

If you’re organizing a set of lectures or recording someone speaking, here are some tips for you.

  • Distribute the recording of the talk in formats that favor free software because everyone can play formats that favor free software such as WebM, Opus, Vorbis, Theora, and FLAC. Installing VideoLAN Client or a free web browser such as GNU IceCat lets users see WebM movies in free formats.
  • Convey details clearly and completely in your invitation by laying down clear ground rules for your event when you invite speakers. Tell speakers in advance what they can expect from the audience (who is likely to attend, what reception are speakers likely to get). Anyone who doesn’t like what you’re describing can decline your invitation.

    Tell speakers:

    • that their lecture and any subsequent question/comment period will be recorded and/or distributed live online in whatever format(s) you pick.
    • the specific license under which all recordings of the event will be distributed. Don’t be vague by saying recordings will be distributed under “A Creative Commons license” (which one?) or by saying the recordings will be “Freely available” (which freedoms will you convey to recipients? Or do you mean available at no charge?). Name a specific license such as “The Creative Commons By-No Derivatives 4.0 license” and provide a clear reference for the license such as a valid link to the complete license text.
    • that you expect all speakers at your event to highlight some idea or favor something in their talks. If I were organizing a series of lectures about Free Software, I’d expect each lecture at the series to focus on and favor software freedom for its own sake and not “Open Source” or proprietary software, nor would I want speakers to fail to distinguish between the GNU operating system and the Linux kernel, no matter how inconvenient expressed opinions might be to business sponsors.
  • It is better to record the speaker and only record the speaker well than to record everything in the room poorly. Do not be shy about recording speakers! Place your camera in the front row and get a feed from the in-house audio system used by the speaker. Condenser mics in located far from the speaker (such as those attached to a camera at the rear of the room) do a poor job of recording the speaker. The speaker’s talk is the primary attraction, so if you are organizing an event give the speaker a mic attached to their head (so the mic turns with their head) or a mic they can hold as they turn and have backup equipment ready should the speaker’s mic fail.
  • Don’t interrupt the speaker(s) for administration details during their talk. In recordings of the 2014 DEF CON talks I noticed that convention administrators interrupted the speaker’s talk to give first-time speakers drinks and a speech announcing the interruption. I found this annoying to do at all; the interruption meant waiting for off-mic administrators to finish, and the interruption broke my concentration when I was focusing on the talk (the reason I spent time with the recording). Instead I think administrators should engage with speakers after the talk, or between the talk and Q&A, or after the Q&A has finished.

Remembering Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz worked hard for our mutual benefit through sharing and he also introduced people to free software. Aaron kindly granted me an interview some years ago for my old radio show. Facing a prison sentence and what Lawrence Lessig rightly calls a bully of a prosecutor, Swartz hanged himself on January 11, 2013. Swartz will be missed.

Reaction from around the web:

More deep wisdom from Eben Moglen

Some years ago, I went to the Free Software Foundation’s annual member meeting. It was well worth the trip, but Eben Moglen’s talk was worth the price of admission.

I have become interested in his talks over the years, and I intend to bring them to a wider audience. Here’s one recent talk from the HOPE 2012 conference (and the transcript is available as welllocal copy). This recording is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license.

Undercut the CRB, broadcast liberated music instead

One area of copyright licensing I’ve found a lot of copyright reports get wrong is music licensing. Consider this quote from’s “Senator Wyden Introduces Bill To Bring Some Sanity To Webcasting Royalty Rates“:

We were just talking about how incredibly broken the system is for establishing webcasting rates, in part because the law itself explicitly says that the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) Judges should look to prevent disruptive innovation and preserve “prevailing industry practices.” In practice this has meant that basic webcasting rates, established by CRB judges, are usually somewhat insane and impossibly out of touch with reality. It’s only gotten worse over time — and the last round ended up being so crazy that everyone basically agreed to ignore those rates and set their own. And while those rates were lower than what the judges wanted to set, they’re still ridiculously high, significantly limiting the amount of webcasting available today. Even the leaders in the field, like Pandora, admit that with current rates, it’s basically impossible for the company to ever make a profit.

You’d think that this statement covers all webcasting of all music; one just can’t set up their own broadcasting station and avoid paying for major label tracks.’s reportage doesn’t explain organizations like Magnatune, a label which licenses all of their tracks to share, or Musopen which describes itself as “a non-profit dedicated to providing copyright free music content” (such as the Musopen lossless DVD). Every year there are more labels providing music in a variety of genres, all licensed to share in any medium.

The wealth of viable alternatives to major label tracks make me lose sympathy with those who want to become another corporate repeater station and complain about Copyright Royalty Board rates shutting them out. The time is now to establish something better that helps more artists struggling to be heard, artists who offer their work to you under amenable terms.

We know that this model works in the marketplace—Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) started in a comparable way, providing a repertoire of music for American radio stations to play under better terms than the competition from ASCAP, a competing royalty/licensing organization which had been around for 20 years. BMI undercut the competition from ASCAP at a time when ASCAP demanded “a fixed percentage of each station’s revenue, regardless of how much music the station played from ASCAP’s repertoire”.

Opus is RFC 6716!

Congratulations to the Opus team for their promising open audio codec and making a new Internet Engineering Task Force standard—RFC 6716!

Opus promises to provide a functional replacement for Speex and Vorbis because Opus can handle the jobs of both Speex (a voice codec) and Vorbis (a general-purpose audio codec). Of course, Opus support is already appearing in the free software world: GStreamer plugins, Firefox, and FFMpeg are already out with more on the way (VLC and Rockbox look particularly interesting to me).

Opus in Firefox should make it more likely to do voice over IP (VOIP) so you can chat with your friends in real-time using only a web browser you probably already have. In turn this means less need for VOIP apps and interesting integration with websites ahead.

Labor issues at Apple and Apple’s suppliers

This list was originally featured on another post.

If you needed a complete list of reasons why you shouldn’t do business with Apple, Richard Stallman tracks such reasons.

  • Apple’s Rotten Core mistreated workers from Apple’s own employees to the workers of upstream suppliers with “aggressive anti-union strategy”.
  • Blood on the Trackpads discusses Mike Daisey’s monologue “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” wherein Daisey poses as an investor, travels to the “Special Economic Zone” of Shenzhen, China, and gains access to Foxconn workers who are eager to share their stories. One story was about an “employee [who] mangled his hand in a factory accident and was fired instead of compensated” and another where “[s]everal workers speak of an employee who died after working a 32-hour shift”. Daisey had exaggerated some of the points in his stories. Sadly for human rights sake, not everything Daisey said was an exaggeration. It is telling that many Westerners are so concerned with Daisey’s exaggerations than with the suffering of Chinese laborers.
  • Three Strikes Against Apple about Apple’s response circa the time of the multiple Foxconn suicides of 2011.
  • On 2012-06-29, Democracy Now! reported

    A labor rights group says it has uncovered “deplorable” conditions at plants in China that supply products to tech company Apple. The New York-based group China Labor Watch says a four-month investigation of 10 Apple suppliers revealed widespread abuses, including harmful working conditions and excessive overtime. The report found conditions in factories that produce cases for Apple products appeared particularly bad, with workers being exposed to loud noise and toxic chemicals. While the uproar over Apple’s suppliers has focused largely on factories owned by the manufacturer Foxconn, the group said it found violations in virtually all of Apple’s suppliers and said some companies mistreated workers more severely than Foxconn.
    Democracy Now! 2012-06-29

    China Labor Watch‘s report is available in English in HTML or as a PDF (local copy), and in Chinese as a PDF (local copy). The press release for the report is also online. There is coverage of China Labor Watch’s report in the mainstream news (1, 2, 3).

  • Apple’s American Workforce and the Service Economy by Matt Vidal

    Last year [2011], the article (Local copy) reports, “each Apple store employee — that includes non-sales staff like technicians and people stocking shelves — brought in $473,000.” Yet, many of these employees are paid just $25,000 per year.
    Matt Vidal
    link to referenced article added

  • Richard Stallman’s reasons not to do business with Apple
  • Transcript of Democracy Now! episode where some of the discussion had to do with the human cost of Apple’s computers

    AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to talk about specifics and also go general. Jim Steele, the story of corporations tell a very major story about the United States, corporations like Apple and Boeing. Apple doesn’t manufacture one product in the United States?

    JAMES STEELE: That’s correct. That’s correct. I think some of the parts—some of the parts are made here, but basically the essential products aren’t. And we made the point in the book [The Betrayal of the American Dream]—we actually wrote about this before a lot of the news surfaced this year—that what was significant about what Apple has done is not just their working conditions in China, which were horrendous by the subcontractors over there, but what they did, they completely closed down manufacturing in this country after really less than a generation. The historic pattern in this country was a product would be invented here, a company would go into business, they would start making it. Up and down the line, you had a broad-based workforce for that product, from folks on the factory floor to the designers, to the salesmen, so on, to the stockholders who might be part of that company. But ultimately, you had this broad-based situation. Apple originally had some manufacturing in this country but very quickly, in less than a generation, just closed that down and shipped most things to China and other countries. And it’s just part of that pattern where jobs that once middle-class people had in this country are now gone.

Another reason not to do business with any proprietor—you don’t really control your computer. On September 11, 2012 TorrentFreak reported that Apple called Craig Donnelly, developer of a program that lets users more conveniently control a proprietary file-sharing application, to tell him that Apple accidentally approved his program for distribution on their app store. This wasn’t surprising because Apple has a history of rejecting file-sharing programs for distribution from their app store. Apple told Donnelly that they would later pull Donnelly’s application. TorrentFreak predicts users who bought the application, “will soon have it wiped from their iOS devices.”.

The lack of control over which programs you can keep on your computer is one reason why I don’t recommend using proprietary programs at all: Apple’s mistaken approval of a program for their app store should have no effect on users who installed the application from that app store. Computer owners should control their computers and decide which apps stay installed.

Louis C.K. turns a quick profit treating his customers well

Some years ago I attended a talk at “Ebertfest”, movie reviewer Roger Ebert’s annual movie festival held in Urbana, Illinois. The talk was held in the Illini Union’s Pine Lounge by the now late MPAA chief Jack Valenti. Valenti used a series of half-true emotional arguments to justify increased copyright power, maximal copyright length, and he also took some time to reject the notion of fair use.

After Valenti’s talk, I was first at the mic. I took my time to rebut as many of his distortions as I could recall. I ended on the point that the MPAA and its member companies didn’t have to treat people badly by suing copyright infringers. The Free Software Foundation has shown time and again that copyright infringers can be dealt with another way: seeking compliance not punishment.

Now comedian Louis C.K. seems to be doing well by dealing with infringers another way: ignoring the copyright infringers and treating his customers well.

Four days ago Louis C.K. released “Live at the Beacon Theater”, an hour-long standup comedy show he funded himself and sold online for $5.00 without digital restrictions management (DRM). It’s as simple as you pay $5.00 and you download (or stream) a copy of the video file. If you download the file you can play it anytime you like on any of your devices without subscription, registration, or notification.

Someone posted a copy of the concert recording to The Pirate Bay where apparently thousands of people have been seeding the file, sending copies of the file to others.

In a statement, Louis C.K. said he recouped the cost of production ($250,000) in the first 12 hours. Four days later he earned $200,000 profit.

There is no indication Louis C.K. is going after the copyright infringers. He acknowledges the infringers in interviews (misidentifying the infringement as “stealing”) but never castigates them. I suspect he knows that there’s no way to know how many people in the torrent are actually copyright infringers, how many purchased the recording, and how many never would have purchased the recording regardless of its price (thus no forgone money there). I think he also knows that he only stands to lose by treating the infringers with scorn.

Years ago, author Stephen King tried releasing a novel a chapter at a time where successive chapters would only be written and released if King reached a sales quota with the previous chapter.

Free software activist Richard Stallman gave a talk at MIT on April 19, 2001 where an audience question prompted a discussion what King had said and offered:

STALLMAN: Yes, it’s interesting to know what he [Stephen King] did and what happened. When I first heard about that, I was elated. I thought, maybe he was taking a step towards a world that is not based on trying to maintain an iron grip on the public. Then I saw that he had actually written to ask people to pay. To explain what he did, he was publishing a novel as a serial, by installments, and he said, “If I get enough money, I’ll release more.” But the request he wrote was hardly a request. It brow-beat the reader. It said, “If you don’t pay, then you’re evil. And if there are too many of you who are evil, then I’m just going to stop writing this.”

Well, clearly, that’s not the way to make the public feel like sending you money. You’ve got to make them love you, not fear you.

SPEAKER: The details were that he required a certain percentage — I don’t know the exact percentage, around 90% sounds correct — of people to send a certain amount of money, which, I believe, was a dollar or two dollars, or somewhere in that order of magnitude. You had to type in your name and your e-mail address and some other information to get to download it and if that percentage of people was not reached after the first chapter, he said that he would not release another chapter. It was very antagonistic to the public downloading it.

Louis C.K. and Stephen King are both famous artists. Both are willing to work to satisfy an audience hungry for new material. King’s approach didn’t go over well with his audience and that experiment quickly died. Louis C.K.’s approach was so successful he concluded, “I’m really glad I put this out here this way and I’ll certainly do it again.”.

Update 2011-12-28: On December 21, 2011 Louis C.K. wrote that he broke $1M 12 days after he released his show.
Louis C.K.'s PayPal account screenshot.