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.

Obama no different than George W. Bush on economy, war

From today’s Democracy Now! (transcript, audio, low-res video, high-res video):

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Scheer, your last chapter, “Sucking Up to the Bankers: Crisis Handoff from Bush to Obama”””has Obama done anything different about the economy than Bush, do you feel?

ROBERT SCHEER: No. Obama has been a disaster. And I say this as someone who was suckered into contributing to his campaign financially. You know, my wife maxed out in her contributions, pushing those buttons every time. I still get emails from the Obama campaign telling “We’re winning here, we’re winning there.” But it’s been a disaster.

Meanwhile President Obama’s occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan continue apace at the cost of trillions of dollars; trillions Americans could have pumped into schools, roads, jobs, buying houses, and so much more. Obama’s drone war against Pakistan and killings in Yemen and Somalia go on and on. Clearly the US will not be on the road to justice until its leaders are tried for war crimes and sitting in prison. AWARE’s most recent flier tells the tale. The financial cost is more than the American economy can bear.

Update (2010-09-10, 2010-09-11): Terry Jones is a pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center, a small church in Gainesville, Florida which planned to mark September 11, 2010 by burning printed Qur’ans. Recently President Barack Obama said that Dove World Outreach Center’s protest “could greatly endanger our young men and women in uniform who are in Iraq, who are in Afghanistan”. Democracy Now! and the BBC report that Defense Secretary Robert Gates echoed Obama’s sentiment to Pastor Jones by phone. The BBC also notes that some unnamed person from “[t]he FBI had visited Mr Jones to urge him to reconsider his plans“. Obama explained the logic behind his statement to ABC News: “this is a recruitment bonanza for Al Qaeda. You know, you could have serious violence in places like Pakistan or Afghanistan.”. The BBC quotes Obama saying “We’ve got an obligation to send a very clear message that this kind of behaviour or threat of action puts our young men and women in harm’s way.”.

Obama, Gates, and their sympathizers who oppose Jones’ protest on these grounds are shamefully trying to deflect responsibility for the continued Iraq & Afghanistan occupations and the Pakistan drone attacks onto Jones’ misguided protest. Amazing how Jones’ small protest captures so much American corporate media attention and is blamed for so much while anti-war activists struggle for national coverage. This alone tells us that there’s something about Jones’ message that is acceptable to corporate media while anti-war protests are not acceptable for corporate media to cover—if you challenge the occupation on ethical grounds you must be kept away from the mic but if your message can be co-opted by those who benefit from war, your effort may be called news. Whether Al Qaeda or anyone else, the occupations and attacks are “a recruitment bonanza” for anyone who wants to end American occupation. The American occupation proceeded under former US President George W. Bush. People are unwilling to be occupied and occupiers have no rights. This desire for freedom in turn “puts our young men and women in harm’s way”. Occupation and a thirst for war are two of the strongest links tying together the two major corporate parties in the US. Burning Qur’ans is notably intolerant but non-lethal and incredibly minor in comparison to occupation. As Jones told CNN, “We are burning the book. We are not killing someone. We are not murdering people.”.

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.

The Sleeping Left: Obama feeds them reasons to object, where’s the outrage?

The Iraq and Afghanistan occupations rage on with no national marches in the US in sight, even while a majority of students are available to participate on summer holiday. In Afghanistan the Obama drone attacks kill civilians a third of the time. On top of all this, “the United States must reserve the right to act unilaterally” according to Obama administration’s first National Security Strategy just like what George W. Bush’s administration said. But apparently there’s no time to organize a national protest in a major city, something akin to protesting the Iraq invasion before it began.

The gusher of oil coming out of the Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico is officially the worst oil spill in US history. It’s not hyperbole to call it a gusher. Images from the live camera feed tell the tale.

Obama’s limited moratorium on deepwater drilling doesn’t seem to cover BP’s next oil rig named “Atlantis” from going online soon. Atlantis is said to have 5X more oil than “Horizon”, the rig which blew up and is currently leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico apparently out of control. Atlantis will produce 8.4 million gallons of oil per day. And we know how well BP handles problems: BP is actively damaging recovery efforts by preventing cleanup workers from wearing respirators and ignoring cleanup workers complaints of illness. The wise thing to do is stop all of BP’s rigs since BP refuses to do their work safely. Lawmakers should pass laws that make BP pay 100% of recovery effort costs (yes, despite BP saying they intend to clean up “every drop” of oil from the Gulf’s shores). Strong punitive laws keeps corporate power in check. BP was running Horizon without a remote control shut-off switch used in two other major oil-producing nations, Brazil and Norway, as a last resort protection against underwater spills. The Wall Street Journal points out that American law doesn’t require this switch. Regardless of the efficacy of the switch, you can’t engage an uninstalled failsafe device.

Lax enforcement of extant regulations helped get us to where we are now with Horizon, apparently leading to the deaths of 11 oil rig workers when Horizon exploded. According to McClatchy newspapers, following on are BP’s inadequate responses and inadequate training of personnel tasked with cleaning up their own oil spill. What are the odds that Atlantis received similarly shoddy setup inspection work? What systemic incentive does BP have to train Atlantis personnel better than they apparently trained Horizon personnel?

Yet there’s no large-scale organized outcry from the Left.

Update: Others are noticing how the Left gives Obama a pass on environmental degradation.

Update: The New York Times reports that BP knew of the Horizon’s problems almost a year ago. The NYT says federal regulators only required under 10 minutes to approve BP’s request.

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