GNU Telephony has their aim set the right way

The GNU Telephony project is a software project for using computers as telephones. By now this isn’t new but it is important as few other telephony projects are based in code we are all free to share and modify.

This project is also important because its politics are in the right place. Recently the US government announced intention to compel American software developers to introduce a means for investigators to get access to all communications—known as “back doors”. This pursuit specifically includes allowing the government to break encryption and allow peer-to-peer services to be intercepted by the government. Such a request defies the entire purpose of speaking freely in a manner which is technologically difficult for others to spy on. David Alexander Sugar, head of GNU Telephony, had this to say in response

Good morning my relations. Today is not such a great day. In the United States the Obama administration is actively seeking a new law to legally mandate the forced introduction of insecure back doors and support for mass surveillance into all communication systems. Specifically targeted are Internet VoIP and messaging systems.

Speaking on behalf of the GNU Telephony project, we do intend to openly defy such a law should it actually come to pass, so I want to be very clear on this statement. It is not simply that we will choose to publicly defy the imposition of such an illegitimate law, but that we will explicitly continue to publicly develop and distribute free software (that is software that offers the freedom to use, inspect, and modify) enabling secure peer-to-peer communication privacy through encryption that is made available directly to anyone worldwide. Clearly such software is especially needed in those places, such as in the United States, where basic human freedoms and dignity seem most threatened.

You’ll no doubt want to read the rest of Sugar’s post. It is well worth your time. Our privacy isn’t just convenient, privacy is critical to the proper functioning of a civilized society.


SintelSintel movie poster is out!


Sintel is the latest Blender Foundation movie. Previous movies were Elephant’s Dream and Big Buck Bunny. Every couple of years the Blender Foundation puts out a movie made with Blender, a free software renderer and sequencer program. The Blender Foundation improves Blender as they go and we all get a better Blender program after their efforts (it should be noted that theirs are not the only Blender improvements).

The Blender Foundation raises money for these movies (which function as both entertainment and technical demo for Blender) in part by asking people to buy a copy of the movie on home video well ahead of time. They accept donations all the time, you can still buy a copy of the 4-DVD Sintel set.

The Blender Foundation movies are unlike other independent movies in that these movies are licensed to share (even commercially), and distributed with all the parts that went into making the movie so you can make derivative works. I know of no major Hollywood studio that encourages you to work with the movie in this way, which is partly why I find it so hard to spend time or money on Hollywood movies; free culture movies set the bar so high Hollywood simply doesn’t compete.

You should demand better for your freedom’s sake and demand more for your money by helping free culture artists do their work.


Local Archive

Sintel is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.

Happy Software Freedom Day!

Software freedom is the freedom to run, share, and modify computer programs. When you have these freedoms, you are free to make your computer do what you want it to do instead of being restricted to whatever the programmers want your computer to do. Free software respects a user’s freedom to learn and participate in an egalitarian society. Free software is the opposite of proprietary software— software which restricts your inspection, copying, and modification.

Having this freedom is not about skill; having freedom of speech doesn’t make anyone a great writer. Freedom means permission to take control over your computer by using software that is free to be shared and improved as you wish. Software freedom is a necessary component for people to live as equals in society.

Today we celebrate software freedom by encouraging all computer users to install and run more free software on their computers so they too can be free. Since 1983 the free software movement has made a conscious political and ethical choice to pursue software freedom for themselves and all other computer users by writing and using computer software that is licensed to share and modify.

An important distinction: Free Software and Open Source

While introducing free software fonts to my colleagues and students at my work, I review the license for the fonts I bundle on the systems I build. Some LaTeX fonts are particularly pretty and useful, so I read the LaTeX Project Public License and the commentary on Wikipedia about this license. This license covers a number of fonts I’m interested in distributing so I was keen to learn if the fonts would be free software—free for my users to use, distribute, and modify (even commercially).

For some time when I tell others that I draw a sharp distinction between “free software” and “open source”, I point out that I agree with the FSF’s take on the matter. I’ve been told that the differences between “free software” and “open source” pale in comparison to the similarities. I’ve seen and pointed out practical implications of this philosophical difference as I watch open source enthusiasts take on proprietary software for their own personal use while I flatly reject proprietary software for my computers, a radical difference to be sure.

The situation with The LaTeX Project Public License is another significant difference that directly affects me and my users: This license has been around a while and is used to license some fonts I find interesting (including Kurier and Iwona). The LaTeX Project Public License is a free software license since it grants users the freedoms of free software yet not an OSI-approved license. Fortunately Wikipedia is careful to make this distinction.

Update 2010-08-29: Thanks to eagle-eyed Nathan Owens for finding a typo above!

Richard Stallman wants users to have software freedom for all published computer software.

Richard Matthew Stallman, founder of the free software movement recently gave a talk entitled “Copyright vs. Community” at Balamand University, in north Lebanon. He has given this talk many times before and there are recordings of previous talks available online (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). I wasn’t at the Balamand University talk, but I’ve heard this talk a number of times and I’m familiar with the questions that are sure to follow. Below I try to answer points of confusion that come up.

According to one poster

He basically said that copying music doesn’t hurt the artist because the artist has already been screwed over by the record industry. Now, I’m definitely not one to argue against the last part of that statement, but Mom always taught me that two wrongs don’t make a right.

Unfortunately there is no accompanying explanation for how copying music is “wrong”. We need to distinguish between what’s illegal (copyright infringement) and unethical. Friends share with each other because sharing is a natural thing to do, sharing builds community, and because people typically value their friendships more highly.

The poster continues

But later, Stallman said something that I found very surprising. He said that he has no problem with the firmware being burned into the hardware (via a ROM chip or the like). He said that he wanted a “black box”, and it’s obvious that he has no problem with proprietary firmware as long as it’s permanently embedded in the hardware rather than being loaded into it at boot time.

What I didn’t understand is why Stallman feels that there’s a difference? What is it? The method used to get the firmware into the hardware? Why make this the line in the sand? It seems very arbitrary to me.

The difference is the user’s freedom to alter the code distributed to them.

Stallman’s distinction (as I’m sure he covered about in his talk) has to do with a user’s freedom to run, learn, adapt, and share functional works (including published software). This is an ethical issue the free software movement does not shy away from. The free software movement works to build and maintain a community of equal opportunity and social solidarity; all computer users should be free to make their copy of published computer software do what they want it to do. The heart of the free software movement concerns itself with the most important question anyone can ask: how shall I treat other people?

When code is in a ROM (read-only memory) chip or in circuitry (there’s no difference when it comes to user’s freedom), the user and developer have no opportunity to change that code without changing the hardware. In this way the developer and the user are equals.

The opportunity for change exists wherever there is storage that allows alteration. When a device’s program is software, the issues of software freedom are raised. The question becomes who has permission to make changes to that software? This is a question of permission not technical know-how, time, interest, or budget to change the software. If the software is free, the user can get a copy of the program’s source code and make their device behave as they wish. They can even help other users by sharing their improved code. If the developer is the only person who may modify the software, the developer subjugates the user. Developers who want to maintain this power over the user will not distribute free software for the device or complete documentation on how the device works.
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Today’s DRM excuses can be tomorrow’s DRM nightmares

Engadget reports that Apple Computer chief Steve Jobs recently spoke about DRM (digital restrictions management):

Q: I bought the movie Up on DVD, it had a digital download. I put it on my iPad. I hooked up my VGA adapter and tried to play it… but I couldn’t because of HDCP. Can you tell me how you’re helping with this?

A: We didn’t invent this stuff…

Q: But you did deploy it…

A: Well the content creators are trying to protect this stuff, and they’re grabbing at straws. Sometimes they grab the right ones, and sometimes they don’t. If we want access to this stuff, we have to play by some of their rules. I feel your pain.

So for proprietors it’s okay to deflect blame for restricting users from fully controlling their computers and simultaneously profit in restricting the users. Apple is big when it suits them (I’m sure they want consumers to believe they are the pre-eminent vehicle for delivering movies and music) and small and helpless against the publishers when it suits them (“We didn’t invent this stuff….”). This attitude rewards those who restrict and does nothing to help users who want to watch their legally obtained copies of movies as they see fit (dare one want to see a movie on a non-approved screen!).

This attitude is bad in itself, but not life threatening. As it applies to watching movies, this DRM is more annoying than anything else because there are plenty of free software movie players (like VLC) that will happily show you a movie on any device you like ignoring DRM that would otherwise get in your way; you can simply choose those programs instead of the proprietary stuff and go about enjoying a little bit more control over your life.

But what if DRM is in a device you need to live, like a heart pacemaker/defibrillator to monitor and regulate your heartbeats? Nowadays these devices are digital and run on software—software you aren’t privy to inspect, change, or share. Some of them are even set up so the software they run on can be altered remotely. Remote administration is sold on convenience, like proprietary traps usually are: A trained physician puts you within radio distance of a device that alters the pacemaker/defibrillator’s settings entirely wirelessly—no surgery or injection after the initial installation!

Remote control is a convenience you might be willing to accept for your garage and car door. But regulating a critical function in your body? This doesn’t sound so good when you consider the ramifications for a device you depend on in order to live. Brad Kuhn and Karen Sandler, co-hosts of the Software Freedom Law Show, recently discussed this problem. Sandler looked into these devices because she has a enlarged heart. The size of her heart increases her risk of sudden death. She has a pacemaker/defibrillator implanted inside her (it mostly monitors her heart but it could shock her heart to keep her alive). Sandler did research on these devices and learned some of the scary facts about them. She said that not only is patient information is carried in some of these devices which can be retrieved remotely without the user’s consent or knowledge, but she also learned that a similar device’s operation was altered without using the original manufacturer’s hardware. Knowing the risks of remote administration, she chose an older model which requires close contact with the device to be adjusted or interrogated. But most patients are not so well-versed in the consequences of choosing a modern medical implant; they’ll pick one which can be adjusted from a distance using something available to everyone (such as software defined radio, like GNU Radio).

What if manufacturers use DRM to restrict who can administer the implanted device? Why should anyone have to surrender control over their body in this way?

We need software freedom for medical devices. There are compelling ethical reasons we need software freedom for all published software (well-covered ground by the free software movement) but also because our lives could be at stake. Whether you choose to learn, alter, or share this software should be up to you as well.

Update 2010-07-21: SFLC publishes their report on “Safety Benefits of Free and Open Source Software in Critical Technology“. More on this report can be found on their site.

FSF taking the high road again: GNU Go on the Apple “App Store”

Apple is currently distributing an electronic version of the centuries-old board game “Go” called GNU Go. GNU Go’s copyright holder is the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and part of the GNU operating system. GNU Go is licensed to everyone under the terms of the GNU General Public License (GPL).

Apple imposes numerous restrictions on program use and distribution on all programs distributed via the Apple App Store. These restrictions are incompatible with the GPL; if one cannot simultaneously comply with all of the GPL’s terms and other relevant terms one cannot distribute their program based on GPL-covered code at all (paraphrasing section 7 of GPL version 2 and section 12 of GPL version 3). This makes Apple a copyright infringer. The developers who ported GNU Go to work with the iPhone are infringing the GPL as well, but Apple is the higher profile distributor here and Apple has a commercial interest in attracting more users to the iPhone.

The FSF isn’t starting the discussion with their legal guns drawn like so many copyright holders represented by the Business Software Alliance, Motion Picture Association, and Recording Industry Association of America do. The FSF takes the high road by initially seeking compliance with their license rather than initially suing. In fact, the only unusual note in this situation is that the FSF informed people about this infringement publicly so soon (typically they privately inform the parties involved about the relevant license terms).

The FSF has a history of taking the high road with copyright infringers. This is another example of how the FSF shows us how to behave by demonstrating the right behavior.

But doesn’t the FSF stand to benefit by taking an infringer to court and making an example of them? No. Take it from Eben Moglen, long-time GPL enforcer and president of the Software Freedom Law Center in his essays on enforcing the GPL:

If I had used the courts to enforce the GPL years ago, Microsoft’s whispering would now be falling on deaf ears. Just this month I have been working on a couple of moderately sticky situations. “Look,” I say, “at how many people all over the world are pressuring me to enforce the GPL in court, just to prove I can. I really need to make an example of someone. Would you like to volunteer?”

Someday someone will. But that someone’s customers are going to go elsewhere, talented technologists who don’t want their own reputations associated with such an enterprise will quit, and bad publicity will smother them. And that’s all before we even walk into court. The first person who tries it will certainly wish he hadn’t. Our way of doing law has been as unusual as our way of doing software, but that’s just the point. Free software matters because it turns out that the different way is the right way after all.Eben Moglen

“Sintel” coming soon

The Blender Foundation, primary hackers of Blender, a free software non-linear video editor and 3D renderer, have been working on a new short movie called “Sintel”.

Visit their blog for more details (including licensing) or download other versions of the trailer:

This trailer is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.

Patent Absurdity: A short movie on the problems of patents covering algorithms used in software

Patent Absurdity explores the case of software patents and the history of judicial activism that led to their rise, and the harm being done to software developers and the wider economy. The film is based on a series of interviews conducted during the Supreme Court’s review of in re Bilski — a case that could have profound implications for the patenting of software. The Court’s decision is due soon.

You can also download the movie from multiple sources (, The Internet Archive, or locally using the links below) and share it with others because this movie is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.


More in-depth

Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement and one of the speakers in the movie, has been talking about the dangers of software patents for many years. Listen to or download his talk from 2002 or read the transcript of this talk which includes pointers to more information about various points in Stallman’s talk. This talk is interesting because Stallman systematically explains how software patents are harmful to all computer users (Paul Heckel’s threats to Apple and Apple’s response is quite instructive), 3 strategies for dealing with software patents, and the multiple perversites of the patent process.

Stop Software Patents is documenting the case against software patents worldwide.