How Important Is Freedom, Really? – by “Dan”

Protector of the Free Software. Image by Victor Powell

Richard Stallman, the leader of the Free Software movement, has sacrificed his life to fighting for open-source code and our right to modify existing software. But should we sacrifice as well?



Since he left his position at MIT in 1983,  Richard Stallman has devoted his life to the rights of individual creators and programmers. He singlehandedly created the Free Software Foundation, and went on to write a number of high quality system utilities for Unix and Unix-like operating systems. Most importantly, he created a movement that changed the face of software copyright and distribution. Today, that movement is thriving, with a plethora of codebases for many different problem domains publicly available, free for any use under the GPL.


This past summer, I experienced firsthand the possibilities of an open-source world. I worked on an Apache Foundation software project, Hadoop, licensed under the Apache License, which the FSF views as compatible with their own GPL. Because of this license, and the spirit of free software prevalent in the marketplace, I was able to view the source code of the project that forms the backbone of products and services offered by such software giants as Yahoo!, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, eBay, HP, IBM, LinkedIn, Netflix, The New York Times, and Twitter. Perhaps more importantly, the code that I implemented may someday become part of the software that these companies, and any other interested parties, use. It is easy to imagine an alternate situation where each of these companies maintain similar, proprietary solutions to the same problem (scalable, distributed computing in this case). It is because of the philosophy and work of the Free Software Foundation that these companies are able to collaborate so freely, and that I could in turn study and modify their combined efforts. In many situations, the work of the FSF results in software products that are more accessible and just easier to use. But in my experience, this is not always the case.


The GNU site hosts many essays on the philosophical musings and practical recommendations of Stallman and the others at the Free Software Foundation. Looking recently through the list, my attention was directed to an article titled “Is Microsoft the Great Satan?” Despite the exciting title, the essay was not very incendiary. One line stands out, however.

 “…you need to reject all proprietary software, regardless of who developed it or who distributes it.”

This sounds like a great idea, but as I thought about the implications of this clause, I realized just what I would be missing out on if I rejected all proprietary software. I wouldn’t be able to listen to MP3s.

Audacity is one of the most popular digital audio editors available today, with a download rate of over 1 million copies per month. It is written and maintained by The Audacity Team, and is released as free, open-source software. The program allows users to record and import audio files as tracks, and then cut, mix and otherwise modify the tracks to create a single audio file as output. It is designed to be easy to use, yet powerful enough to handle the needs of audio engineering amateurs and prosumers working on a wide variety of projects. Under the terms that Audacity is distributed, that of the GPL, all source code must be freely distributable, without restriction on its subsequent use. According to Section 12 of the GPL, if the conditions on any part of the distributed software contradict the GPL, then the software cannot be distributed at all. It is for this reason that Audacity does not support the MP3 file format.


The MP3 file format, used ubiquitously for sharing and storing songs and other audio tracks, is protected under patent law. The format is the intellectual property of the Fraunhofer Society, the German applied science research organization which invented the standard. In the USA, Canada, the EU, and Japan, among other countries, the patents are enforceable, and through the administration of Thomson Consumer Electronics, the Fraunhofer Society has received royalties and licensing fees for use of the MP3 standard in software and hardware equipment since 1994. In 2005 alone, they received 100 million euros in such fees. When an individual acquires a consumer music product, whether hardware or software, whether free or paid, the producer of the content pays a fee to the original creator of the MP3 standard. Developers who distribute their code as open-source cannot be expected to pay licensing fees for the users of their contributions, and so the GPL expressly prohibits that kind of arrangement. In effect, there cannot be a truly useful music player or editor program released under the GPL, where usefulness is (reasonably) defined to include the handling of MP3 files.

Although Audacity does not come with support for MP3s out of the box, it is designed to work with third-party extensions that provide exactly this functionality. There is even a link to LAME, a popular free MP3 encoder, on the dialog box that informs the user that MP3 output is not supported. But use of this workaround violates the Free Software Foundation’s call to “reject all proprietary software”, as LAME or any other encoder used will be protected by a proprietary license. By clicking the link, you propagate the control of software by restrictive contracts and submit to the authority of an outside owner who retains complete control over the software and any modification of it.

Downloading LAME may violate the spirit of the FSF, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing to do. Rejecting all proprietary software can only stifle innovation and put limits on our creative output. While it is conceivable that all individuals would be better off in a world where all software was released under the GPL, in our world today, I am content to use free software when it is convenient and useful, and unafraid to use proprietary software otherwise. For most users, a computer is merely a means to an end, and in this regard, the philosophy of the Free Software Foundation may be alienating and ridiculous to many who hear of it. It is important to separate the ideology and rhetoric from the reality of the situation. Fight for a free tomorrow, but work flexibly within the intellectual property framework in place today.

The Viability of Free Software – by “Dennis H”

Moglen: The Theory of Free Software

Eben Moglen lays out a grand vision for the incipient changes to the landscape of intellectual property. His paper concludes with little difficulty that free software as epitomized by the GNU/Linux model is both more efficient and less restrictive than the software dominion of Microsoft that characterizes the status quo. Moglen gives an historical argument for why free software is bound to succeed with his claim that “legal regimes based on sharp but unpredictable distinctions among similar objects are radically unstable.” As for the presently existing standards of the current legal regime, “Parties will use and abuse them freely until the mainstream of ‘respectable’ conservative opinion acknowledges their death, with uncertain results.” Intellectual property is bound to change, he prophesies. At the rhetorical summit of this vision, he even tells a New York Magazine reporter, “The people who have short-term needs for more money and more power are an ancient regime on the verge of being swept away.”

Moglen’s theoretical-historical understanding of current trends in intellectual property — and software ownership in particular — is on point. Things do need to change, and at a certain point they will change. But Moglen’s arguments leave open the question of how and when these changes will take place. Moglen offhandedly proposes the image of a “bellum servile of couch potatoes against media magnates.” Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, but the image raises the question … is the notion of free software actually catching on? It’s clearly catching on with some geeks and law professors, but is it catching on with the public at large? In the lingo of Diaspora*’s consultancy firm: free software jives with the beards, but can it work for the girls?

Linux: The Bellwether for Free Software

Consider Linux. The open source operating system is the poster-child for the past, present, and future of the free software movement. Engineered in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, Linux has indeed made considerable inroads en route to its ultimate goal of world domination (or, toppling Microsoft). Most importantly, Linux currently powers over 60% of the world’s top 500 supercomputers, including the 10 fastest supercomputers in the world, a testament to its high-performance efficiency. Less importantly, but still indicative of increasing popularity, the government of Brazil has recently given Linux its official endorsement. “What interests the government is to give options, to give alternatives to the proprietary — to the almost monopolistic — domain,” said Brazil’s secretary general of science and technology in 2008. Other endorsements have come from the Russian military, the Chinese technology independence initiative, the Indian state of Kerala, and even the likes of France and Germany.

On the other hand, various sources estimate the desktop market share of Linux from less than 1% to 4.8%, while Microsoft maintains more than 85% of the market. According to Wikipedia, in terms of the usage share of web client operating systems, Linux sits at a minuscule 1.65%, in comparison with 81.97% for Windows OSs and 9.27% for Macs.

What will happen to Linux in the future? It has certainly grown by leaps and bounds over the past two decades, but while it has cornered the market for supercomputers and won the hearts of tech-savvy nerds around the world, it has yet to gain a strong hold on the general public in the United States. If and how Linux will overcome the Microsoft monopoly remain to be seen.

Diaspora*: The Viability of Baby Steps

But what about other “free software” efforts? Consider the makers of Diaspora*, who take Moglen as a primary source of inspiration. The Diaspora* crew see themselves as working towards Moglen’s grandiose vision of future digital communities — only, by a more immediate and pragmatic pathway. “[Moglen] sees way into the future,” says Max Salzberg, “We really like that conception, but there’s got to be a baby step.” The relevant baby step, says teammate Ilya Zhitomirskiy, is that “we want to move people from websites that are not healthy, to websites that are more healthy, because they’re transparent.” In particular, the makers of Diaspora* want to move traffic away from the perennial privacy villains Facebook, and onto their own, open, decentralized social network.

Is Diaspora* a viable project? Can it compete with Facebook for social networkers around the world? Needless to say, Facebook possesses one advantage that may prove to be insurmountable: the enormous inertia of its 600 million current users. Diaspora* will have a tough time recruiting Facebook users when they must abandon their present abode, leaving behind them the critical mass of friends and contacts already registered on Facebook.

Diaspora* can, however, offer a number of things that Facebook cannot. Share what you want, with whom you want, says its homepage, in stark contrast to Facebook’s offer to give you: “spying — for free!” Specifically, Diaspora* claims that it offers three innovations to the social network model: (1) choice, by which users can sort their contacts and share particular information with the precise audience of their choice; (2) ownership, by which users can maintain their claims to anything posted on the site; and (3) simplicity; by which privacy options are straightforward and transparent to users at every point. All three are significant improvements on Facebook.

Diaspora* certainly delivers on these promises — just set up an account and see for yourself — and what’s more, it even makes the effort to smooth users’ transitions from their Facebook accounts. For instance, while you can’t friend someone on Facebook via Diaspora*, you can now post Facebook status updates via your Diaspora* account.

So will Diaspora* succeed, over the next few years, in wooing the Facebooking masses? It’s certainly possible, especially when people start to realize that Facebook (a) isn’t all that special, and (b) isn’t all that great with its users’ privacy. As Moglen points out, Facebook’s promise essentially amounts to, “I will give you free web hosting and some PHP doodads and you get spying, for free, all the time.” This is not a very attractive offer, when stated in such stark terms. As Diaspora* collaborator Rafi Sofaer puts the thought, “We don’t need to hand our messages to a hub. What Facebook gives you as a user isn’t all that hard to do. All the little games, the little walls, the little chat, aren’t really rare things. The technology already exists.”

Whether Diaspora* flourishes or crumbles over the next two years remains to be seen. But at the very least, the young networking site has one deep-pocketed friend: Mark Zuckerberg himself. “I think it is a cool idea,” said Zuckerberg, who donated an undisclosed amount to the project. He admires the group, he says, in part because he sees “a little of myself in them.” Whether his donation was a gesture of condescension, a public relations gambit, or a genuine statement of support will remain a mystery, but the thought of Diaspora* as a new-and-improved Facebook in the making is certainly an exciting one.

Free Software: Not Just Operating Systems – by “Benjamin G”

GNU/Linux is the poster child for the free (as in speech) software movement. It is highly reliable and capable software that has beat out proprietary operating systems in fair competition, proving that people will in fact produce software even without the incentives provided by copyright law. If there’s a bug in the program or a missing feature, someone will be annoyed enough and competent enough to fix it out of self-interest, and everyone will benefit from the improvement. At least, that’s how GNU/Linux developed, and the theory is that the same principle will apply to any sort of free software. But does it? Will people voluntarily improve any program they use?

Games are probably the kind of program that would work least well with the free software model. Nobody has to play a game, so nobody will be forced to fix a bug in order to do his job. And if the sum of the experience of fixing the program and then playing the amended version isn’t better than the experience of playing the game as it is, it won’t be worth it for anybody to work on it.


There are free games, though, some of which are apparently pretty good. Battle for Wesnoth, for example, is a free, turn based stragegy game licensed under the GPL. It is “the most played turn-based strategy game on the Linux platform, being probably the most polished, full-featured and addictive game in its category.” I’m not surprised that a turn-based strategy game has been successfully developed as free software; the programming challenges are less about window-dressing and more about the underlying gameplay. And that kind of coding can be fun in itself.

I am by no means an expert coder, but a few years ago I did write a blackjack game. I wasn’t collaborating with anybody, but the free software model did apply, to an extent. I found a shortcoming in the existing software (most computerized blackjack games shuffle the deck after each hand rather than dealing out six decks of cards before randomizing) and I took the time to fix it. I tried to build as many features as I could, but I’m sure I missed some; I’m also sure that, if I put the source code online, someone would be interested enough to fix it. (I’m glad to distribute the source code [it’s written in Java] if someone tells me the best way to do so)

I’m less sure that someone would take the time to design a really good GUI. To me, at least, designing user interfaces is labor intensive and boring- not worth the time. I may just be projecting my own biases here, but I suspect that fewer people will voluntarily work on the tedious but necessary tasks that are necessary for some types of games.

Of course, with a large enough user base, there will be some people who really enjoy doing graphics. But still, on average, free software will be weaker in these areas. There’s a certain amount of boring but necessary work that must be done, and most of the time that means you have to pay someone to do it.

Free software can be produced by paid programmers. Quake and its sequels are an example of software licensed under the GPL but produced by a commercial company. My point is only that the model of “the users will do a better job than any defined group of developers” works better for some tasks than for others.

Free and open source is not always the answer – by “Emily Y”

A recent New York Times article spotlighted a key issue in the world of open source software: businesses using others’ open source code to develop their own products and then failing to follow Open Source Standard (OSS) requirements. Open source issues such as these can be difficult – if not impossible – to overcome in the business sphere.  How can we expect programmers to put years of hard work into a quality program, and then just give it away for free?  But as its benefits to technological growth become increasingly obvious, open source software is becoming more common and accessible.  Is it possible for the future of software to be completely free and open source?

In the past, I’d been skeptical about of free software.  In respect to the quality, the free programs I’d downloaded and tested were fine, but never matched up to the caliber of (pricey) proprietary software programs.  More importantly, however, might have been that the phrase “open source” sounded like something that might appeal to a computer programmer, but not to me, a generally-technologically-capable-but-coding-oblivious student.  Why would I care whether or not I could access software code?

I’m not sure that I will ever have the desire to look at the coding of software.  What it comes down to is that some software on the market just doesn’t fit in a college student’s budget.  Moreover, most of this software is packed with features I’d never use, for techniques I’ll never understand.  When it comes to computers, I’m just a hobbyist.  For example, in working with newspaper design, I love toying around with the abundance of features that Adobe InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator offer.  However, purchasing Adobe Creative Suite CS5 would set me back anywhere from $300 to $900 – and that’s the Student pricing.  Thinking about all of this led me to go the free route and test out a couple of “alternative” open source programs: GIMP and Inkscape, two major open source rivals to Adobe’s Creative Suite.


GIMP is a free graphics manipulation program, with offerings similar to that of Adobe Photoshop.  In several ways, it lacks the power and usability of Photoshop.  Yet there are offshoots of GIMP that have used it to come awfully close to reproducing Photoshop.  The creator of GimPhoto took GIMP and modified it with features and a UI that rival those of Photoshop.  One major issue I held with GIMP was its inability to simply batch process a group of photos (automatically execute the same adjustments on several photos simultaneously).  According to the GIMP Wiki, in order to do this, the user must input commands, such as the one below:

(define (simple-unsharp-mask filename
(let* ((image (car (gimp-file-load RUN-NONINTERACTIVE filename filename)))
(drawable (car (gimp-image-get-active-layer image))))
(plug-in-unsharp-mask RUN-NONINTERACTIVE
image drawable radius amount threshold)
(gimp-file-save RUN-NONINTERACTIVE image drawable filename filename)
(gimp-image-delete image)))

Which, to me, is closer to gibberish than a true “command.”

But still, the bottom line is that most of what GIMP doesn’t have, I wouldn’t use anyway.


Inkscape is the GIMP to Adobe Illustrator.  On most levels, Inkscape and Illustrator are identical when it comes to features.  There are a very small number of Illustrator features that are missing in Inkscape, but again, the people who makes use of these features are just a tiny fraction of the software’s users.   And the reverse is also true: Inkscape includes a number of useful features that are unavailable in Illustrator.  In fact, I found the Inkscape UI to be slightly more intuitive than Illustrator’s.   Thus, in my opinion, user interface and personal likings are what should influence one’s decision in this case.  Brand names are irrelevant.

A question often posed on the topic of open source software is whether or not computer programmers would continue to output quality software if there was no profit incentive.  But there is actually a great deal of profit to be made via free, open source software.  Where does the money come from?   Large companies such as Microsoft, Apple, and Google pay licensing fees to use open source software more freely.  For example, MySQL (an open source database) allows users to access and use its software at no cost; however, improvements that users make to the software must be shared with the company.  For individual users, this is generally a non-issue, but businesses rely on keeping the rights to their work to generate profit.  Thus, they pay these licensing fees, which can add up to significant profits for the original creator.

So why (or why not) open source?   There’s incredible room for enhancements in software, and with the increased freedom and flexibility of open source, the possibilities are endless.  Yet at the end of the day, I can’t use OpenOffice (sorry, Maria!).  I like the power of Microsoft Office, and I’m much more comfortable using it — no matter how annoyed I get with its UI changes.  Therefore, I understand if you can’t bear to make the switch to GIMP.  While we shouldn’t let our lives be controlled by proprietary software, we also shouldn’t impose limits on ourselves solely to promote open source.

In the end, a healthy balance between the two is really what we need.  There still is – and, I believe, always will be – a market for proprietary software.  Yet the major advancements made by open source software in the past decade are proof that open source is changing the way we create and use computer software.  The age of assuming “expensive software is better software” has passed; we are realizing that free software is no less advanced than proprietary software, while once-seemingly-impossible barriers to open source are gradually being overcome.

“A lot of people talk about open-source versus commercial, but they’re not mutually exclusive. Don’t view it as an all-or-nothing prospect.” — Steve Gerdt, program manager for open-source strategy at IBM.

Open Handset Alliance far from open by GNU standards – by “Bill T”

Like the previous blogger, I too am in love with my Droid. He is a Droid X. His name is Yeste (after the most famous swordmaker in all of Florin), and he runs Verizon/Motorola’s official OTA release of Froyo (Android 2.2) with Motorola’s MotoBlur skin on top of it. Motorola is a proud member of the “Open Handset Alliance” which is a group of 78 tech companies that seek to propagate Google’s open-source mobile operating system, “Android”. Some of its members are wireless distributors seeking wider access to smart phones, others are phone manufacturers looking to decrease some of its costs, others are developers excited about a popular mobile platform with a low bar for entry. All of them are in the business of technological advancements. All of them are in the business of making money. Many of them are competitors.

Google has set a tone of openness not entirely unlike that in GNU’s copyleft standards, but that tone ends at the conveyance of Android. As the leading producers of Android handsets, Motorola and HTC are the most capable of upholding the attitude of openness begun by Google. Motorola and HTC add the custom skins “MotoBlur” and “Sense UI” respectively  to Google’s stock form of Android, a practice Google adamantly defends, and one clearly aligned with GNU’s policy of allowing modification and redistribution (not that GNU’s rules apply to Android).

HTC has been moderately good about maintaining openness when conveying Android. Though they’ve added Sense, it’s possible to turn off most of it’s features and return to stock Android. Users seeking superuser access will still need to “root” their phones in order to load new firmware, but HTC hasn’t done much to prevent that. In fact, it’s become as easy as downloading an app to root HTC’s phones.

Motorola on the other hand, has shown a proclivity towards limitations on this openness. In order to remove MotoBlur, one must root one’s Motorola phone.  While rooting the Droid X and Droid 2 is possible, it is very difficult in comparison to other Android phones due to Motorola’s inclusion of a “Locked Bootloader” which, though it doesn’t “brick” the phone, takes very strong measures to prevent rooting. This ardent anti-circumvention measure would unquestionably violate copyleft standards, if they applied, and as a result, lowers the bar for openness among members of the Open Handset Alliance.

So what accounts for the difference between Motorola and believers in copyleft? Yes, Motorola is in the business of making money, but profit is not something the GPL disdains, indeed it embraces it by clarifying its definition of “free” as regarding freedom (which MotoBlur lacks) rather than price (which Motorola is happy to include). As the leading manufacturer of handsets, it can’t be that Motorola lacks interest in technological progress. Indeed, many consider Motorola’s Droid to be the first real “iPod Killer.”

Perhaps it’s the desire to beat the competition at either of these factors that drives Motorola’s desire to lock things down. While GNU supports gaining from modifications on open software, it doesn’t appear to support competitive enterprising. While GNU supports technological progress, that is not its primary tenant. Motorola’s desire, first, to lead the way rather than to contribute primarily to the customization of the Android platform is what pushes it so far away from the copyleft standard. Motorola doesn’t seem to want us to truly own the software on our phones.

I’m very happy with my MotoBlur-running Droid X, and even when given the warranty-preserving options of downloading MotoBlur-replacing apps like Launcher Pro or Handcent SMS, I’ve stuck with Motorola’s stock apps. I may not be better off for that, but I’m happy with those functions as they are. I don’t really need free tethering or mobile hotspot capabilities. With the ability to tether via Bluetooth to my MacBook Pro which can use its Airport as a hotspot, I’m satisfied. I don’t plan to root any time soon. Having said that, every once in a while I come across a cool app that says “requires root,” and wish that that wasn’t necessary. None of the apps have been worth voiding my warranty or taking the chance that I’ll brick my phone by screwing up the complicated process of circumventing eFuse, nor have they even been worth remembering. But as members of an Open Handset Alliance, perhaps Motorola should still consider democratizing superuser access.

After all, is there any good to the consumer from such a locked-down device?

Free as in Software: An Exploration of Free Open Source Software – by “Michael W”

Free Open Source Software has played a critical role in the emergence of the digital age. For my final project I decided to examine this phenomenon from a few different angles. First, I built a website using only free open source software. This was, not surprisingly, exceedingly easy. The widespread availability of open source software and the vibrant health of online programming communities have contributed immensely to the explosion of innovation on the web. Next, I captured this precise point (inadvertently, I should add), by stumbling into a situation in which I needed to ping the FOSS community for help, and they ultimately answered beyond my expectations. I used Facebook and its pending FOSS alternative Diaspora to illustrate the subtle differences between “free” versus “free software” versus “freeware.” And finally, I wrapped up with some thoughts about the future of free open source, as it applies to software and perhaps even beyond. You can view the project at

Free As in Software

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.

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

– by “Jacob A”


Free software, as Richard Stallman likes to point out, is a matter of freedom, not one of free beer. The free software movement’s stance against the idea of proprietary software is rooted in something far larger and more complex than mere economics – the lash against TiVo, for instance, does simply not stem from distaste for TiVo’s monetization of its product, but from something distinct, although closely related to the commercialization of software, which is that proprietary software, beyond fattening the pockets of its creators (whoever and however many they may be), inevitably deprives users of a whole slate of freedoms. This is the beef with software patents – that they are anti-freedom. Free software is about politics more than it is about economics.

The problem with Stallman’s vocal position against “TiVoization” – which has since become fodder for the ongoing battle between Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman – is that it might under certain lights appear to go beyond being pro free software to the point where it is actually anti-profit. At their most basic, all three versions of the GPL seek to protect computer users from being denied the freedom to use and manipulate their computers and programs as they wish. Stallman is a venerable defender of individual freedom. He believes in people coming together to work for the general good of society. Liberal to the bone, vehemently protective of individual liberty, he opposes cloud computing, for instance, because it is a threat to individual privacy and because cloud computing represents just as big a menace as proprietary software to users’ control and to their rights to tinker.

In its utter embrace of users’ rights and shared creativity, free software relinquishes central control, the kind of control that is often used selfishly and against the interests of the community or society, the type of control synonymous with proprietary interest. As demonstrated by virtually all open-sourced productions, efficient, useful projects need not be centralized to work well.

TiVoization represents a kind of control that runs against the grain of free software ideology. The TiVo box/service runs on free, open-source software (the GNU Linux system) under the terms of a GPL copyleft license, but uses hardware restrictions to prevent TiVo users from modifying or tinkering with their TiVo software. Stallman has made the attack on TiVoization – the very real denial of user freedom entailed by the TiVo practice of encoding free software that is covered by a copyleft, within hardware restriction – a central feature of the third version of the GPL. Linus Torvalds, for one, is less militant than Stallman in his views on proprietary control. For Torvalds, a copyleft license (the “freedom” part of “free software”) should only regulate software, and not the hardware on which it runs. Thus, one could still modify the software on a TiVo box to run on another hardware, just not on the TiVo box itself. Torvalds’ view of free software, then, is fundamentally different from Stallman’s.

DRMs or digital signatures used to prevent modified software from running on specific hardware do indeed deny TiVo users a certain degree of freedom, but then again, complete and total user freedom has never (until now) been a feature of real-world business. Trade secrets and patents abound in the physical world, and TiVo is very much a physical product. It is more than just software. Torvalds believes “TiVo never did anything wrong… The fact that they do their hardware and have some DRM issues with the content producers and thus want to protect the integrity of that hardware [sic].” TiVo may be a boot-loader, but the Linux kernel license covers the kernel alone, not the hardware, and “people who make their own hardware can design them any which way they want.,” according to Torvalds.

The disagreement over TiVoization, between Torvalds and Stallman, is a profound ideological one. It reflects divergent views about property (both physical and intellectual) and about the uses of technology. Stallman is right to say that free software is different from open-source software. One is a development methodology (open-source) and the other is a social ideology with ethical incentives. Stallman may be a programmer, but he but he is foremost a political thinker, an activist. The movement he helped launch, the free software movement, reveals, in a deeply urgent way, the moral underpinnings of technology, software, and intellectual property.

That software creation is most innovative in areas of least intervention (ie. free software) and that most software patents are filed by patent lawyers, firms and patent trolls (very rarely by the programming “comrades” who value, according to Stallman, friendship over obeying the law or making money) are hugely important facts that speak to the observable economic (to say the least) harm of patents on the software sector. Patents promote litigation, pitch patent trolls against software producers, prolong monopolies, and are hardly linked to real achievements. These are real damages and proof that software should effectively be free. But Stallman goes beyond the economic motivations for free software. His attack is not just against proprietary or nonfree software, but seemingly against a great many forms of property in general. The GPL 3.0 is not just about software, but about the commercialization (or non-commercialization/freedom) of hardware, too.

Both Torvalds and Stallman know that free software and TiVoization are not simply about business models, but about how people live their lives. In a keynote delivered at a Red Hat conference, legal scholar (and Stallman’s attorney) Eben Moglen said: “The free software revolution is in that sense distinctively a return to the tradition of the transformative result of individual ingenuity. It redressed a balance in the world of software, which had tilted too far away from the utility of individual ingenuity. It freed users to improve and share, and to benefit freely from other people’s improvements, but it also freed individuals to invent.” Inaccessible and propriety software makes the world a less inventive, more selfish, and darker place, less comprehensible, less conducive to human autonomy, and one in which machines have increased control at the expense of individual freedom. The issue of software, then, is an issue of how we live our lives. It is a matter of moral urgency, and deserves to be thought of as such. But as far as the discussion surrounding software is a discussion of political principle, one should pay closer attention to Stallman’s arguments as such – not merely as calls to action, not merely as bell-ringing activism, but as carefully staked, and truly sweeping, political positions.

Torvalds has been thrashed and lambasted for writing of Stallman that he “literally sees free software as a fight between good and evil.” Torvalds is worried about Stallman’s militancy. He says on his blog, “You do realize FSF scared a lot of reasonable people away with its politics?” And that’s precisely the point, and the problem. Software is a matter of politics, and it should be treated as such – as a complex debate within which multiple ethical and economic imperatives are at play, rather as a Manichean, yes-no battle of right vs. wrong. Torvalds gets attacked for endorsing then-Senator Obama in the same breath as he delivers his criticism of GPL 3.0, in that same blog post, but Torvalds’ admiring mention of Obama, pre-2008 election, simply served to draw an analogy between Obama’s promise of post-partisan progress and the kind of progress Torvalds himself was hoping to see in the Great Software Debate. At the time of his blogging, Torvalds hoped and believed that Obama “really can see the other side not just when it comes to religion, but when it comes to international issues too.” The problem with Stallman’s thinking is not that he’s wrong about software (he’s not) but that he fails to consider other perspectives. The GPL 3.0 goes beyond pushing for free software; it veers on the militant as it attacks TiVoization and business practices. Free software truly is a revolution – even though it doesn’t get spoken of as such – but it operates in a world where overly zealous idealism and Manichean categorization do little to serve the mainstream revolution of ideas, but rather give the impression of originating from the fringes, and not the center of the conversation, where it all belongs.