Novell (Finally) Wins – by “Zak J”

In a courtroom in Salt Lake City yesterday, concluding a three week trial, a jury ruled unanimously that copyrights for UNIX code are held by Novell, not The SCO Group. After a seven year dispute, this ruling stands as an important, if ostensibly obvious and overdue to many, decision in support of free and open-source practices. SCO originally charged that Linux, a paragon of free and open-source collaboration, infringed on the copyrights for Unix, which they claimed to own.

In 1991 Linus Torvalds started developing Linux, a free and open-source type of operating system based on the the GNU General Public License created two years before by Richard Stallman. GPL follows a kind of pay-it-forward philosophy called copyleft which maintains that a work may be used, modified and redistributed as long as the same rights are available in the resulting works.

Since then, such free (“ in speech, not free beer” –Stallman) software has spread far beyond any esoteric programming communities. As Yochai Benkler stated in The Wealth of Networks, “opensource and its wide adoption in the business and bureaucratic mainstream allowed free software to emerge from the fringes of the software world”. As he also mentioned, companies like Google, Amazon, IBM, and Hewlett Packard have come to depend on Linux and actually participate in the growth of free software.

This major, mainstream reliance on and trust in free and open-source software has not just allowed it to emerge from the fringes, but has also defended and supported it, as in the recently ended seven year fight between Novell and SCO. In the Salt Lake Tribune, Jason Hall, a founder of the Utah Open Source Foundation, said this about the verdict, “There’s actually large enterprises now that have a strong stance in the matter and are willing to stand up for the rights of the enterprises themselves but also for the community as a whole.”

– – – – –

The Black Night scene from Monty Python and The Holy Grail seems to be a recurring analogy in the discussion about The SCO Group’s continued efforts.

Is free to be and not be still on the table? – by “Hank H”

As a graphic designer, I work in a medium where the artwork I create at some point has to either be made digitally or translated into a digital format. What this means is using software such as Adobe Creative Suite that contains licensed software for illustrating, editing photographs, creating layout, and developing media design (web and mobile). The price for Adobe software–which has become industry standard so there is really no way around it–is no small investment. Currently, for Adobe Creative Suite 4 Design Premium (a little better than Adobe CS 4 Standard but a step down from the Master’s Collection), the price for a full version is $1799.00, upgrade from $499.00. Did I forget to mention that they release a whole new CS every year or so?

Until recently, except for a (very tiny and shrinking even still) handful of other design software, Adobe was really the main, if not only option in terms of creating digital artwork. In addition, from a production point of view, artwork needed to be received in a standard format to to go to press or to upload online. There are benefits and drawbacks towards this set up. One clear benefit is that by having everyone operate in one file format, it makes it much easier in terms of compatibility across platforms. However, from the creative standpoint, what one finds is that how you operate in the creative space is largely determined and constrained by the digital tools available.

In a recent article in The New York Book Review by Garry Kasparov, The Chess Master and Computer, Kasparov raises the difference of how computers play chess and how humans play chess. Further, he notes that as the use of computers has pushed the game of chess into a new arena and by our use of them to train and play, “humans today are starting to play more like computers.” I raise this point because his observation can be carried over to the design world, where designers, too, with the computer and more to the point, with Adobe CS 4 as our only digital tool, our way of ‘playing’ has been deeply effected. In fact, it is no coincidence that the colors of the default swatch will be perhaps the most common colors you will see used in print and media design.

Adobe Illustrator CS3 Color swatch

Recent advertisements

So in recent years it has been very interesting for me to see free / open-source software, namely Processing ( and indexhibit (, edge their way to becoming a serious platform for creative expression in the digital domain.

Processing was created by Ben Fry and Casey Reas while completing their graduate studies at MIT. It is a java-based program that is open source, and was created initially to serve as a digital sketch book for artists and those interested in experimenting and creating visual programs. As such, it has been the prefect playground for non-progammers and programmers to explore, develop, and create digital works that range from mobile device applications to dynamic and interactive physical installations. A recent visible example is the identity software for COP15 the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen 2009.

COP15 Generative Identity Software – Evolutions Light from okdeluxe on Vimeo.

In the hands of the designer, the applications or sketches give way to new shapes and forms. In essence, they become creative means for developing designed pieces that no longer have to take place only within the Adobe CS world. As a result, designers, in this newly given context of open-source software, are designing their own tools–and this is what I find both fascinating and empowering with free software, in that it positions users to rethink the way that they might engage or even see software (free and restricted), and in turn, it redefines the role and creative practice of the user, opening areas of creative endeavors and development. Still, an interesting note is that some of the language used to describe code recalls to visual examples of what most designers would be familiar with in a typical Adobe CS program. (Perhaps Kasparov’s observation is not so easy to escape afterall.)

When hard pressed, it is difficult to rule out one (free) over the other (licensed) simply because invariably to commit to open-source software alone is to take faith and rely on everybody and nobody–not to mention the skills, time, and availability to do so. At the same time, there is an uncanny fixture in having severe restrictions with what you can and can’t do with something that you have fully purchased and for all intents and purposes have the right to claim as your possession. This is not to say this debate is impossible, rather this is to say that perhaps integral to the health of both free and licensed software is the existence or duality of both.

As technologies continue to open new platforms, namely the soon to be released iPad, It will be interesting to see how the role of free software will continue to evolve and shape our interaction and experience with soft/hard ware.

The Future of Open Source, or Open Source is the Future? – by “Matt A”

I’ve seen a lot of impressive implementations of open source (to some extent) software. From Firefox to Linux and Open Office to Eclipse, open source software has really become pervasive in our society. But this isn’t a move that is widely followed; there are still a lot of large companies or industry giants that aren’t moving toward a more open web (Microsoft, Apple, and Adobe, to name a few). What does that say about the future for open source?

Open source has always filled a strange niche of demand; a group of elites building their own Utopia in a sense, working with each other to find solutions to difficult problems. It sounds great, but it isn’t perfect, and it isn’t the whole solution. If everything were open source, everything would be fully customizable and free, and one could do anything and everything with their own personal experience. The problem is that not everyone is a programmer, not everyone has the time or know-how to build his or her own interfaces or programs. How could tech support operate for these individuals? The gap between the tech savvy and technophobes would be far greater than it is today. Sure their would be people who would be willing to create templates for these individuals, but would those people be enough to provide for everyone who needs it? Maybe. Even then, it is much easier for a company with a set system to provide for those needs.

The dimorphism has other useful characteristics as well. Fostering competition. For open source to work, you need a group of committed programmers who are willing to spend their time and resources on an endeavor that they really believe in. Often, however, those resources fall short. Sometimes there aren’t enough hands. Bring in the corporate side, and you have enough funding and enough hands to go around. They also bring their own motivation, commercial success. This isn’t a rant on greed or corporate behavior; companies exist to meet the needs of consumers and money exists to facilitate that transaction. Fiscal success is a powerful motivator for research and development, and competition an even better one.

So while a lot of people complain about Apple refusing to support Flash or Flash’s hold on the market, or about Apple’s stringent controls on their app market (a lot of Apple popping up >.> ), it isn’t really an issue. Either another company rises to the occasion and fixes the issues, or individuals become passionate about it and fix it themselves. I don’t think that open source is the only future, but I do believe that it is part of it. Whether programmers are motivated by monetary compensation or by some passionate belief, they are still fighting to write better code than the next programmer. And honestly, that’s all that matters.

Dogs don't know how to develop open source software. They are also useless with power lines and telephone poles.

Open-Source Software in Your Living Room – by “Michael C”

Google TV
Google TV

Google’s innovations and technologies are constantly becoming more prevalent in our lives. Google already has a firm hold on the computer and mobile markets, but soon, Google technology will find a way into another room in your house—the living room. Google is currently developing “Google TV,” a platform that will deliver web content, everything from Twitter to YouTube and Hulu to Picasa, through televisions and set-top boxes. Google has realized that more and more consumers are exploring ways to bring web content to their TVs, and they want to play a central role. They are teaming up with Sony and Intel to develop the first set of devices, but all device and TV manufacturers will have access to Google’s software platform. Clearly, Google faces a lot of competition in this field, as they will be competing with everyone from TiVo, to Apple (remember the Apple TV?), to smaller companies like Roku and Boxee. Yet, there is a unique element to Google’s foray—the Google TV software will be open-source.

Why does Google plan on opening up its software? Google feels that the various set-top boxes that currently exist are too limited in the amount of web content that they offer. By opening up the software platform to developers, the company hopes that it will “spur the same outpouring of creativity that consumers have seen in applications for cell phones.” In fact, the Google TV software will be based on their Android operating system for smartphones, so that developers already familiar with the platform can begin developing software quickly. Google will deliver a toolkit to programmers in the next few months.

It will be interesting to see how Google’s move will play out. With such a crowded market, Google can only succeed by having an innovative, unique product, so it makes sense that Google chose to make its software open-source. Yet, I am curious about how open the platform will actually be. Google may allow anyone to manipulate and change the source code of their software, but will device manufacturers allow independent developers to put their software on the devices, without any restrictions, or will it be limited to the device-specific software? Perhaps Google will take a page from Apple’s book and make something similar to the app store where developers can upload their software, which must be pre-approved by Google before users can download it onto their devices.

Additionally, it seems like the current collection of set-top boxes are aimed at people who value simplicity and ease of use over modifiability. Those values aren’t necessarily at odds with each other, but Google seems to be positioning its software for use on higher-end, more powerful and customizable devices (probably costing over $200). At some point, the average user may just decide to go for the easier to use and more inexpensive devices out there (like the $80 Roku) rather than spend extra for a Google TV device, as they may not find the extra power necessary or valuable. The power user, at the other end of the spectrum, may wish to skip the Google TV as well and simply hook a computer up to the TV, which would be the most powerful solution. Therefore, the very nature of the device as a middle ground, so to speak, may result in a relatively small user base. Yet, if Google can properly harness the innovation of the open-source development community, their software could become the best around and take the set-top box market by storm.

Google has realized that more and more consumers are exploring ways to bring web content to their TVs, and Google wants to play a central role. They are teaming up with Sony and Intel to develop the first set of devices

DRM – A Personal History – by “Brendan G”

A few years ago, my laptop was stolen. A day or so after the theft, I started to get bills from iTunes for songs I had never downloaded. Whoever has possession of the computer was able to purchase songs through the iTunes store because I had the “one-click” download feature turned on.

My Laptop (circa 2007, pre-theft)

Assuming I could just change my password and prevent future downloads turned out to be wrong. Apparently once a computer is associated with an iTunes account, the user is never asked to input their password, even if that password has changed. The only thing I could do, according to Apple, was cancel the credit card associated with the account and open a new account. The worst part? Apple had flagged my old account as “fraudulent” so I could no longer listen to backups of songs I had downloaded prior to the theft.

Now I was left without access to the songs I had purchased with my old account, while the thief was able to continue listening to my music, free of charge. Apple wanted to make their DRM system transparent and user friendly, but in the end, left a gaping vulnerability in the software that only hurt the legitimate consumer.

Had the iTunes store been DRM-free, I would have been able to recover my music from a backup relatively easily, but instead I was locked out of my own purchase. And at the same time, their DRM system did nothing to prevent someone else from accessing the content. So in the end, nobody wins.

Of course, this all happened before the iTunes store went “DRM-free”, but the experience made me reluctant to purchase anything from them, knowing how lax their security measures are. I was never a very big spender on iTunes, but ultimately Apple lost a customer because of their DRM system.

Illegal to Plug In – by “Kate H”

Remember these?

My friend still has one of these...

How about these?


Today, the phone market is teeming with options. A consumer can take her pick of smart phone operating systems, if he’s into that sort of thing. Cell phones and phones that connect to landlines come in every color and shape imaginable. Every few months, phone manufacturers release new styles, operating in a market where consumer demand guides innovation. People find their two-year contracts burdensome when new models arrive on the scene.

In such an environment of choice, it’s easy to forget that this was not always the case. As Doctorow reminds his readers, “It used to be illegal to plug anything that didn’t come from AT&T into your phone-jack.” (13) Phones were rented from the companies that provided phone service, and due to a lack of competition, innovations were virtually non-existent. With government supporting the monopoly and other gigantic barriers to entry, consumers were left with very few options, beyond the decision to add a second line.

In this bizarre AT&T advertising musical, the separate beds in the master bedroom are the least of the hilarity. The whimsical housewife dreams of her dream house, sultrily requesting, “I wish I had a stove whose pilot light was always lit… Furthermore, a kitchen phone at hand when friends call to chat a bit!” (Skip ahead to 7:30 to experience this musical gem.)  Later, she croons, “A lady likes to have a chance to change her mind. I might like a yellow room with turquoise and white. And maybe a telephone that lights up at night.” (I’d fast forward to 9:30 for this one.) In reality, in 1956 this leading lady would have had very few options in the case that she decided to “change her mind.” She would have had a limited catalog of colors. If she was lucky, perhaps she’d have the option of renting a princess phone.

Of course, many households worked around the restrictions and set up second lines in their houses, without renting from the phone companies. People will hack. People had more incentive to hack when their only legal option was to pay a ridiculous rental fee for a second phone. Adding an illegal second line was not uncommon: neighbors and friends helped each other to bypass the rental rules.

1983, by government command, AT&T began selling phones to the public, instead of just leasing them. At this time, phones had still not progressed much beyond their original styles.


Clearly this opening of the market was good for the consumer. Clearly this was good for everyone except for the phone companies who could no longer collect monthly rental fees for the use of their phones. It’s easy to see the parallels between the phone rental system and the current practice of using DRM to “protect” intellectual property from illegal distribution.

When I purchase music, videos, software, or other media protected by DRM, I feel as though I am renting the material. At any time, the company who manages the protection on my purchases could go out of business, or restrict my ability to use my property –they claim they’re selling, not renting– in whatever way I choose. Even as a not-so-savvy middle school student, I removed the protection on the music I purchased from the iTunes store by burning discs and ripping the songs back onto my computer. It was easy.

As many have pointed out, trying to protect encryption methods through anti-circumvention laws that restrict people from spreading secrets is both inefficient and ineffective. (And come on, the idea of an illegal number is just funny.)  Hackers will hack. Phone owners will add secret second lines. Middle school students will figure out how to circumvent protection through a simple Google search. Continuing to utilize DRM as such will only serve to anger paying customers. And that’s bad for business.

Windows 7’s New DRM – by “Yingqi G”

Last month saw a controversial update to Windows 7’s validation features. After the much aligned Windows Genuine Advantage several years ago, which requires you to verify your copy of Windows, February’s update to Windows Activation Technologies makes the check periodic. In light of the draconian DRM software in some recently released games, it seems consumers are fighting a losing battle to keep their computers free of the secret software police.

The only problem is that people are still buying the software. Among those who oppose DRM, one not uncommon argument is that DRM degrades the value of the product by making it less convenient to use than the alternative without DRM. This alternative is often just the original software with DRM removed, usually illegally. Thus, as the argument goes, DRM incentivizes piracy. Proponents of DRM believe that stronger, more pervasive DRM is the solution, while opponents of DRM believe the software publisher should remove the incentive to acquire copies illegally.

Both sides have seen their successes. On the one hand, many successful game publishers have managed to shift their software away from DRM by selling some value-add service, frequently in the form of multiplayer play. On the other hand, many game publishers have found success in digital distribution through Steam, a distribution channel tied to DRM that also requires regular online check-ins like Windows. In other words, history has yet to prove either side right.

Windows 7 adds an interesting twist to the question. While music, software, and other media containing controversial DRM are usually consumable entertainment, Windows 7 is an operating system. The DRM software doesn’t control your ability to enjoy any product in particular. It controls your ability to use your computer. It controls your ability to perform any number of functions, both in daily life and in business.

Fortunately, alternatives do exist. Apple is well-known for being equally if not more unfriendly to consumers for their completely pervasive DRM software that extends far beyond just verifying your operating system. And, of course, there’s the long tail containing UNIX, Linux, and other miscellaneous operating systems. Linux is a clear alternative to operating systems containing DRM software. However, again, as history seems to indicate, DRM isn’t a critical factor. Despite the clear-cut difference, that Linux doesn’t share Windows and OS X’s preference for potentially extremely inconvenient DRM, Linux has nowhere near the same market share.

The question of Linux’s market share is very hotly debated. However, it suffices to note that DRM on Windows hasn’t yet pushed a significant number of users to switch operating systems. There are plenty of reasons, and, unfortunately, none of them bode well for those of us who oppose DRM.

One reason is that many users just don’t notice it. While it’s still too soon to say anything about Windows 7’s new measures, Windows Genuine Advantage remained relatively invisible except for the one-time inconvenience when you first install Windows. Another large segment of Windows installations come from businesses, where IT generally shields users from DRM headaches. Time will tell whether these periodic check-ins will be any more visible.

Another reason is the network effect. Since Windows 7 is an operating system and not “just a piece of software”, its attraction lies not so much in its inherent values, but rather in the software users need that is available only for Windows. Two large categories of such software are games and in-house applications used by businesses.

To be clear, I personally dislike DRM and would prefer that Windows 7 didn’t have its new measures. Unfortunately, like the users I talked about, I will continue to use Windows 7. Despite the new features, I have yet to be inconvenienced enough to give up the software for which need Windows 7, and as long as that remains true, Microsoft is going to get away with more than just their new measures.