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The long arm of the MPAA reaches into Norway. The arrest of Dmitry Sklyarov struck many as one of those "only in America" events. Certainly no country in the "free world" would attempt to arrest a programmer for having written code. The indictment in Norway of Jon Johansen, co-author of the DeCSS code, has shown that the world is not so simple.
This indictment comes as a result of pressure from the Motion Picture Association of America on ōKOKRIM, the Norwegian agency in charge of dealing with economic crimes. As described in this EFF release, this prosecution is a novel application of Norwegian law:
Johansen's prosecution marks the first time the Norwegian government has attempted to punish individuals for accessing their own property. Previously, the government used this law only to prosecute those who violated someone else's secure system, like a bank or telephone company system, in order to obtain another person's records.
Even that is not enough for the MPAA; they wanted Mr. Johansen charged with contributory copyright infringement as well.
The usual groups are swinging into action, and protests have happened in Norway. The EFF has set up a 'Free Jon' mailing list for those who wish to follow this case. With luck, the Norwegian justice system will see reason and eventually drop the charges against Jon Johansen. In the mean time, however, he is facing the possibility of two years in prison. All for allowing people to "break into" their own property.
This is not just an American problem. In the modern world, bad ideas can spread globally in little time - especially when pushed by a mean and scared industrial group. There will be more Dmitrys and Jons in our future, and they will be found worldwide. Those of us who value free software are going to have to fight for it, even in the "free world."
Should Aunt Tillie build her own kernels? Eric Raymond has been working for some time on a new kernel configuration system which, someday, is slated for incorporation into the 2.5 series. This project has seen its share of controversy over the last year, but, perhaps, never at the level of the last week. What is the development that has set off so many kernel hackers? It is an autoconfiguration module (implemented initially by Giacomo Catenazzi) which figures out which hardware is present on the system and cooks up a kernel configuration to match.
Eric has been working overtime to justify this work by way of an amusing set of stories. For your amusement, here are the inspirational tales of Aunt Tillie, her nephew Melvin ("Autoconfigure saves the day. Possibly it even helps Melvin get laid"), and the 'girl geek' Penelope. Beyond the possible improvement to hackers' love lives worldwide, the reasoning behind the work is essentially this:
Because the second we stop thinking about Aunt Tillie, we start making excuses for badly-designed interfaces and excessive complexity. We tend to fall back into insular, elitist assumptions that limit both the useability of our software and its potential user population. We get lazy and stop checking our assumptions. When we do this, Bill Gates laughs at us, and is right to do so.
There are reasons to question some of Eric's scenarios. Aunt Tillie is almost certain to be happier with the kernel supplied by her distributor, which includes numerous patches, has modules for an unbelievable variety of hardware, and has been extensively tested. Building and running a kernel off the net, even from a "stable" series, will never be without its potential surprises.
But the hostility to the autoconfiguration idea seems to go beyond that. Some people clearly do not want Aunt Tillie to be able to build a kernel without learning about the process and understanding what hardware is on her system. Some, perhaps, fear Aunt Tillie's inevitable "help me" message to linux-kernel once the process fails. Others, perhaps, prefer a world where only the Select Few are able to do certain things.
That latter view was often seen in arguments against the desktop projects a few years ago, though it seems to have faded away in recent times. But perhaps kernel hackers ("girl geeks" included) remain a more hairy-chested bunch. If Aunt Tillie can build her own kernels, that's one less thing that sets them, and their skills, apart.
Linux hackers in general have managed to get over this attitude in general, and that has been an unmitigated good thing. It has been repeatedly shown that Linux can be made easier to use without taking away the power appreciated by more advanced users. And an easier Linux, among other things, helps to ensure that the advanced users can work with Linux in the office as well as at home.
So there is no harm in the creation of an autoconfiguration system for the Linux kernel, as long as nobody is forced to use it. Even if it does not really solve Aunt Tillie's problems, there will certainly be a class of users that is helped by easier kernel configuration. It may even turn out that some of those kernel hackers end up using it to quickly configure and build a kernel for a strange system - when nobody is looking, of course.
Correction: last week's LWN Weekly Edition stated that Guenter Freiherr von Gravenreuth was behind the legal attack against MobiliX in Germany. The truth of the matter is that he registered the Obelix trademark in that country, but is not the one pursuing the enforcement action. We regret the error.
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January 17, 2002