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How should code be regulated? Your editor has just finished a lengthy project - reading Lawrence Lessig's Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. The project was long because LWN leaves little time for outside reading, and because one does not push through Lessig in a hurry - even without reading all the footnotes. Anyway, the book, which makes a number of interesting points about freedom in the networked era, finishes with a direct call for the application of regulation to software.
The case used to illustrate Mr. Lessig's point is the whole Y2K mess, which seemed rather more urgent when Code was published than it does now.
It is a lack of a certain kind of regulation that produced the Y2K problem, not too much regulation. An overemphasis on the private got us here, not an overly statist federal government. Were the tort system better at holding producers responsible for the harms they create, code writers and their employers would have been more concerned with the harm their code would create.One can raise a number of straightforward objections to this claim, starting with the very strong presence the U.S. federal government had in the whole Y2K mitigation area. But one has to wonder how effective any sort of government regulation would have been in avoiding the Y2K scare. The idea of coding under state-mandated date representation standards - and standards for everything else - is pretty scary. Shall we bring in governmental code inspectors before every release? How much could really be accomplished via this path? The idea of raising the activity of the U.S. tort system also lacks appeal.
Interestingly, Mr. Lessig points out the advantages of open source software in other contexts - he likes its inherent resistence to governmental control and suppression. But he misses the fact that free software had relatively few Y2K issues from the beginning. The bug in the mission-critical nethack application notwithstanding, users of free systems lost little sleep during the date rollover. Very few things had to be fixed.
Might it be that the most effective regulation of code, that which has the best chance of preventing future Y2K's, is to have the code out there under a free license? Rather than the (admittedly strawman) code inspector and government standards mentioned above, free software can bring to bear many inspectors who carry with them a set of flexible, timely, and real-world rules. And, of course, they can fix the problems they find themselves. Rather than a vindictive system seeking to "hold producers responsible" for their code, we have a proactive system which takes responsibility for making the code better. Free software requires no regulations, no bureaucracy, and no courts. And it works.
If public safety is to be used as an excuse to regulate code, then public safety should demand that code be regulated in the safest and most democratic manner of all: by having the code be free.
Linux on handheld computers. The Linux system has turned up in a great number of places, from desktop systems and web servers through to top-500 supercomputers and cameras. So far, however, it has been mostly absent from the ubiquitous, handheld, "palmtop" systems seen in so many shirt pockets. If Linux is useful in all those other contexts, why not in handheld systems as well?
Linux got one step closer to the palmtop when Compaq (in the form of Jim Gettys) announced the creation of Handhelds.org. This site is intended to be the focal point for the development of free software operating systems on handheld computers. To that end, it holds code repositories, documentation, mailing lists, and other, related materials.
To be sure, Compaq would like to see people buying its iPAQ H3600 with Linux installed - it did, after all, announce the release of a Linux port to that system recently. But Handhelds.org goes beyond being a Compaq-specific site - it addresses handheld systems in general. Thus, for example, it includes the Phillips Nino port. This site goes beyond Linux as well - there is also work on a NetBSD port for the iPAQ.
Progress has been quick - there is already a 2.4.0-test1 kernel running on the iPAQ. Expect the pace to pick up once it's possible to actually buy one of these systems - it will be too much fun for developers to resist. Linux is coming to a shirt pocket near you shortly.
Software patents - the fun continues. The "Eurolinux Alliance of European software companies and Open Source associations" has announced (in English and in French) the creation of a petition against the implementation of software patents in Europe. The announcement includes quotes from a number of European free software business figures. Those who would like to avoid the creation of U.S.-style patent problems in Europe may want to have a look and consider adding their names to the petition.
Meanwhile, one almost wonders if British Telecom might be closet opponent of software patents. After all, what better way could there be to demonstrate and call attention to the problem than to claim a patent on linking and turn loose a lawyer squad to start shaking down U.S. ISPs? Patent number 4873662 was filed back in 1980, and claims to cover:
Informaton for display at a terminal apparatus of a computer is stored in blocks the first part of which contains the information which is actually displayed at the terminal and the second part of which contains information relating to the display and which may be used to influence the display at the time or in response to a keyboard entry signal....When a block is read from the store of the computer the second part is retained in another store which may be located in the terminal or in the computer itself or perhaps both.
If this patent is upheld, anybody making a link in the U.S. will need a license from BT to be fully legal - at least until 2006. Such an outcome may well be unlikely, given the degree of effort that is likely to be directed toward defeating this patent. But the patent demonstrates clearly the degree to which patents on software techniques threaten everything that we do.
The U.S. Patent Office, meanwhile, has scheduled the Intellectual Property Symposium of the Americas. The purpose of this fancy gathering is not to question the proper role of intellectual property law; instead, the agenda items include things like "Business Software and Business Methods Patent enforcement issues." The event is being held September 11 and 12 in Arlington, VA; registrations have to be in by July 31, but there is no registration mechanism in place yet. One can only hope that a few rational voices can manage to attend.
Feature: Interview with Carey Bunks. LWN has posted an interview with Carey Bunks, the author of Grokking the GIMP. A wide range of topics is covered, including the GIMP itself, the history behind the book, the pros and cons of writing under an open content license, and more. Check it out to get the scoop from one who has made a major contribution to the free documentation available for Linux.
One last note on Linux laptops. Last week's discussion of Linux laptops talked about how few vendors carry such devices. We neglected to mention a long-time vendor of laptop systems: ASL, Inc.. ASL has been in the laptop business for a long time; we regret the omission.
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June 22, 2000