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Leading items and editorials


Microsoft's comments on open source, as expressed by VP Jim Allchin, came out shortly after the last LWN weekly edition went to "press." By now, most readers will likely have seen what he had to say; those who may have missed the story can check it out on News.com. Since then, the volume of responses from the free software community has vastly exceeded the original remarks. One would think that there was little to add at this point.

Except that many or most of the responses appear to miss the point. It is important to understand what Microsoft is after with those sorts of comments, or we risk fighting the wrong battle.

It is highly unlikely that Microsoft is making any serious attempt to "outlaw open source." Getting such a law passed would be incredibly difficult, and enforcing it would be impossible. The United States is certainly a strange place, but it's not that weird. Nobody will be outlawing free software anytime soon.

Besides, a big legislative fight over an attempt to ban free software would make it all too clear just how threatening Microsoft sees it to be. Instead, the strategy will be to create de-facto prohibitions through patents, proprietary protocols and formats, and all the other usual tactics. So there is no need to get ready to fight a new battle. No need to print up "They'll take my free software when they pry my cold, dead, carpal-tunneled fingers off it" bumper stickers.

Microsoft's goal, instead, has to be this: the company wants to head off any move within the government toward the use and support of free software. Microsoft is right to fear this scenario: free software makes all kinds of sense for governmental use. Governments should strive toward openness; should certainly avoid being locked into a single vendor's software, file formats, and protocols; and should try to spend its taxpayers' money wisely. All of these point toward the use of free software.

The other role of government in the modern world is the creation of public goods. Parks, roads, bridges, air traffic control systems, etc. The more libertarian side of the free software movement will disagree, but many others think that free software is another example of a public good that governments should fund and support. Proprietary software companies, of course, are less than pleased with the idea of tax money going to build free alternatives to their products.

Mr. Allchin's real objective when he says "world's largest software maker has to do a better job of talking to policymakers" is to keep the U.S. government firmly behind proprietary software. He may well succeed. Free software seems to be a hard concept for many people to understand, and the clue level of many U.S. legislators is remarkably low.

As distasteful as it is, the free software community at some point may have to think about doing "a better job of talking to policymakers." As Lawrence Lessig (along with many others) has pointed out, if you ignore the system, it will do things that affect you without your input. Perhaps it's time for a free software lobby?

(See also: Tracy Reed's comments, which were sent to LWN; I don't want to be Jim Allchin on kuro5hin, Rant Mode Equals One on LinuxToday; this ZDNet article saying that the GPL was Allchin's real target; and .comment: Microsoft Doesn't Care What We Think on LinuxPlanet).

The declaration of software freedom. The folks at FreeDevelopers.net aren't about to accept any grief from any proprietary software concern. Instead, they have published The Declaration of Software Freedom, which doesn't mince its words in any way. Consider:

We, therefore, the representatives of Free Software Developers, in FreeDevelopers.net assembled, do, in the name of Developers of GPL Software everywhere, solemnly publish and declare, that Free Software Developers of the world are, and of right ought to be, Independent Software Developers; and that all commercial connection between them and the projects of Proprietary Software is, and ought to be, totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent Developers, FreeDevelopers.net has full power to levy Philosophical War over the software development paradigm, develop Free and Independent GPL Software, contract commercial alliances, establish e-commerce and communications, and to do all other acts and things which Independent Software Developers may of right do to protect themselves and citizens everywhere from software predation and monopolization.

It must be about time for soldiers in red coats to show up.

Legal issues were also a big theme at the Peer-to-peer conference, hosted by O'Reilly last week. Peer-to-peer technology raises both hopes and concerns, and for the same reasons. When the Internet first started to take off, it was noted that it enabled people to converse and exchange with each other, without the need for intermediaries. Somehow that vision turned into the current web, which, to the cynical, looks much like an American suburban street full of big-box stores.

Peer-to-peer protocols have the potential of restoring that earlier vision and allowing people to make their own associations. This idea does not sit well with any number of institutions that prefer to have a say in how people interact. Music companies are terrified that musicians might deal
[Lawrence
Lessig]
Lawrence Lessig (photo: Derrick Story / O'Reilly Network)
directly with their fans, and governments don't like communications paths that do not have obvious control points. And, of course, software companies worry about their role in a world where developers talk directly with each other and their users and where world-class software is developed without the need for large, proprietary firms.

So it is not surprising that one of the highlights of the Peer-to-peer conference was Lawrence Lessig's keynote, where he called for P2P developers to fight for their right to innovate. Otherwise, those who benefit from the increasingly restrictive intellectual property climate will take that right away.

At the same talk, John Perry Barlow came out with an even stronger line:

After the 9th Circuit Court decision, I feel that the only way to deal with law in cyberspace is to ignore it, wildly, flagrantly. I want everyone in this room to consider themselves a revolutionary and go out and develop whatever you damn well please.

The decision referred to, of course, was that one taken against Napster. The fact that many of Napster's users were using the system to violate copyright law was sufficient to shut down the entire service. The free software community cares greatly about copyright - our licenses are based on it, after all. But we should be afraid when a useful service can be shut down just because it can be used illegally.

The intellectual property battles are going to get fiercer before they get better. And free software is going to be at the heart of them. Napster, as a centralized system, is relatively easy to shut down. Free software, being inherently decentralized, is much harder - see, for example, just how long it takes to track down a copy of DeCSS. So many of the most interesting and subversive protocols of the future will be done in the free software mode. It will be interesting to watch.

(See also: the O'Reilly Network's extensive coverage of the Peer-to-Peer conference).

Italian law 248/2000 and free software. Of course, the U.S. is not the only country with an interesting legal situation involving free software. Last September, Italy passed an amendment to its copyright law with an interesting twist: any medium containing software which is to be used for commercial purposes must bear a "SIAE stamp," which must be purchased from the taxation authorities.

In practice, in order to obtain the stamps, you should go to one of the authorised offices, fill out a host of forms only available at the office premises, pay the dues, and come back after one to three weeks in order to get your coveted little adhesive rectangle of legality.

Needless to say, this law has interesting implications for those working with (or, perhaps, simply using) free software in Italy. Each CD or diskette with a free package on it needs a stamp; and a CD (or laptop) with hundreds of packages could, conceivably, need hundreds of stamps. Italy, often considered an innovator in the area of taxing absolutely everything, is now attempting to tax free software.

The Associazione Software Libero in Italy is, not surprisingly, concerned about this law, and has written up a summary of the law and its implications for free software. Worth a read.

Announcing: the new LWN.net desktop page. This week, we are pleased to announce the debut of a new page in the weekly edition, On The Desktop. This section, edited by Michael J. Hammel, will cover all aspects of desktop Linux. Have a look, and let us know what you think.

Inside this week's Linux Weekly News:

  • Security: Phil Zimmerman leaves NAI, vixie-cron, pgp4pine, ROADS and Bajie vulnerabilities, OpenSSH 2.5.1.
  • Kernel: Exception table races; ReiserFS and NFS; ext2 directory indexes; Adeos.
  • Distributions: Coyote Linux bugged by bogus buys, Debian tries a new freeze strategy.
  • On The Desktop Ximian strategies, Eazel and the giants, and KDE gets financial software.
  • Development: Music as data, DVD on Linux, BlueHoc, Narval, Ruby Book online.
  • Commerce: Hard times at VA Linux Systems, Maximum Linux shuts down.
  • History: The roots of ALSA; leading up to the first LinuxWorld conference.
  • Letters: Lots of letters: RTLinux patent, BIND alternatives, SAIE, and more.
...plus the usual array of reports, updates, and announcements.

This Week's LWN was brought to you by:


February 22, 2001

 

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