Mad Dog 21/21: Hearts and Minds
April 30, 2007 Hesh Wiener
In 1991, Richard Stallman‘s great project, the GNU operating system, was made whole when Linus Torvalds developed the kernel, Linux, that it had lacked. The next year, there was a marriage. Henceforth, Linux, like GNU before it, was to be distributed under the General Public License (GPL), the legal arrangement that defines Free Software. Today, GNU/Linux is arguably the most popular server operating system, and the GPL is the dominant license for revealed source code software. Yet it is still not certain that there is safe place for both hearts and minds in the unfolding world of software development.
Currently, the Free Software Foundation (FSF), which produces the evolving GPL, is trying to create a version 3 of its license that is expected to supplant prior versions, including the current version 2.1. Version 3 will attempt to address two knotty issues.
The first is called tivoization, which is a word coined from the company name Tivo. Tivo uses free software and complies with the GPL but the gadgets it makes will only run programs that bear an acceptable digital signature. This practice contrasts but, strictly speaking, does not conflict with the philosophy of freedom for users that FSF advocates. GPL version 3 is likely to end up with wording that allows tivoization in cases where the underlying hardware is a consumer appliance.
It’s a bit like this. Imagine a ventriloquist, such as the late Paul Winchell, and a dummy, like Winchell’s Jerry Mahoney. Now suppose Winchell had claimed and exercised various legal rights to his entertaining routines by one or another means and further that he was able to nail down the rights to the characters he invented for use in his routines. But also imagine a world in which Winchell never created his own props and instead used various puppets called X86, Powerbox, and Mainframe, and that each of these was a patented by a different company.
Now suppose you go out and buy one of those X86 dummies at the local toy store and go around performing a ventriloquist act. You can use the dummy as you please; you paid for that when you bought the dummy. You can perform your original routines, too. But if you start calling your dummy Jerry Mahoney and you also copy Winchell’s style and some of his acts, you are stepping over the line. Well, you might be, unless Winchell licensed his entertainment under terms similar to those in the GPL. In that case, you wouldn’t have to pay Winchell for using his character and his routines, but you would be obliged to license any variations on Winchell’s work that you developed under the same terms, because that obligation to perpetuate the GPL license is part of the GPL.
What Tivo did is as complicated as what Winchell did in his maturity, when, among other things, he provided the voice of Tigger in some of the Disney Winnie the Pooh features.
Winchell was able to boast of his performance. But Disney owned the film. And the heirs of Stephen Slesinger have a grip on Winnie the Pooh characters, because Slesinger bought exploitation rights from their creator, A.A. Milne. In addition, an army of lawyers have had stakes in the matter.
So, lots of people love Tigger and particularly the creature’s earnings, but they probably don’t love everything associated with the character. Tigger fans were not amused when a Disney employee was arrested for fondling while working in a Tigger suit, a headline-grabbing flap that ended in an acquittal.
Another matter that has arisen is the use of computer services that can be based on Free software, such as the Web-based applications offered by Google and Yahoo. The services providers don’t publish or distribute code, so they may not fall under the GPL. Even though the big portal sites have worldwide reach, their actions in this case may be comparable to the use of an application program running under GNU/Linux but used by only one person or one corporation. If that program is not published or distributed, there is no obligation on the part of its developer to adhere to the GPL that governs the underlying GNU/Linux system.
Arguments about software licensing can get pretty confusing, and that’s even before the players get all lawyered up, as they do when there’s big money involved.
But that very confusion has itself produced an unusual benefit for software developers (and for software users who care about the ideas that have emerged from the development community). Perhaps the first place to look for an explanation of these benefits is on the Website of the Free Software Foundation. But don’t stop there. Some of the individuals and organizations that differ with FSF–whether minimally or dramatically–have Web posted their view, too.
For example, while free software and open source advocates may often agree in their practices, they differ sharply in the ideas behind these practices. Microsoft says non-proprietary software is crap, but then also says it loves the stuff, when that happens to be advantageous.
So, where does all this leave Richard Stallman and his colleagues at the Free Software Foundation, to say nothing of the many people who are involved in open source code and other variations on the non-proprietary software theme? And where does it leave users, who want to take advantage of the excellent software that’s arisen in the non-proprietary universe and not end up in some kind of goofy Tiggerish licensing squabble, like the kind SCO once thought was a smart fight to pick?
Well, it’s probably a safe bet that FSF and its GPL will prevail, and that Richard Stallman will keep pouring his heart into the work that began in his mind. Stallman says that during the past two decades he’s changed his focus from free software development to the social advocacy that protects and encourages so many developers, including a lot of people who don’t agree with all of Stallman’s positions but perhaps grudgingly know they owe him a vast debt of gratitude.
Ordinary people using a Web site that’s built on a GNU/Linux server have no idea who Stallman is, and maybe that is part of the beauty of the situation. After all, fans of Tigger cartoons don’t necessarily know anything about Paul Winchell, and many fans of Paul Winchell who know about Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smif have no idea that Winchell held the first patent on an artificial heart, a device that was a progenitor of the Jarvik device.
And fans of Richard Stallman might not know that he, like Paul Winchell, has a connection with the life sciences. Before heading for Harvard, where he earned an honors degree in physics, Stallman served as a lab assistant in the biology department at Rockefeller University. This digression from a path through computing that, for Stallman, began about the same time, has not led Stallman to extend his social activism in favor of Free Software to similar legal issues that are now so prominent in the life sciences. But he says he has in fact thought about the way patent laws and other laws granting restrictive rights to creators and inventors can constrain access to the fruits of life sciences research much the way they do in software. Unfortunately for those who might wish for Free DNA, Free Vaccines, and Free Medicine, there is yet no Richard Stallman in biotechnology. On the contrary, some restrictive practices in biotechnology and agribusiness make those in computing seem lax, and make the phrase “life sciences,” more likely coined by a spin doctor than a medical doctor, sound ironic to the those with a cynical ear.
Speaking of cynics, there’s a story about Diogenes in which Alexander the Great finds the philosopher digging in a pile of human bones and asks him what he’s up to. Diogenes replies that he was looking for the bones of Alexander’s father, but can’t seem to distinguish them from the bones of slaves. As it turns out, Stallman doesn’t think much of Diogenes, but perhaps that’s because familiarity with wise and witty Greek happens to be one of his lacunae.