The purpose of copylefts

Cory Doctorow knocks it out of the park with another great analysis of what the recent WotC decision means for the .

This perfectly showcases what a lot of people are missing about the strengths of the licenses like GPL and Creative Commons: These licenses are not meant to protect the creator (like copyrights) they are meant to protect the user!

When I share something I made and I provide it to your as AGPL, what I am effectively saying is that I want you to use this, and not only promise not to ever take it away from you, but also explicitly legally bind myself to that extend as well!

The point is that people change and things change, but just because I changed my mind later or got greedy, shouldn’t allow me to retroactively take away ideas I’ve given away. In fact things like AGPL shouldn’t even need to exist, and all ideas should work likewise.

But as always capitalism has ruined everything to the point where we need to make exceptions to avoid the expropriation of even things like human ideas.

This is why proponents constantly harp not to trust corporate licenses like these. They are not meant to protect you, they are meant to trick you.

Ryzom finally free

Ryzom has finally been liberated. It took just 4 years but I never would have thought it would finally happen!

European Retail box for The Saga of Ryzom.
Image via Wikipedia

Do you still remember Ryzom? the MMORPG that was closing back in 2006, was attempted to have its source liberated by the Free Software enthusiasts, got taken over by another company, which subsequently bankrypted and the whole thing stalled? Well it seems that finally, 4 years after the original suggestion was made, Ryzom has been released into the wild as a pure Affero GPL3 Free Software, assets and everything. Exciting!

I just got an email announcing this and even though it took a helluva long time to get this through, it’s nevertheless better than never. Since I’ve covered this subjects twice in the Division by Zer0 already, I thought I should at least announce this exciting development and finally close this chapter of the saga.

I am extremely glad that this has finally happened. I’m very interested if the liberation of the code will manage to re-energize a game which has been practically on life-support for the past 4 years (and wasn’t doing very well before that anyway). I’m interested to see if the first completely free software game which can arguably be called to be of commercial quality, will manage to make any kind of effect in the MMORPG area.

Now that the doors are open, it can be extended in ways that were never considered or followed due to cost constraints. The community can finally start fixing the bugs and then add custom content which can quickly be improved upon and replicated elsewhere.The Affero GPL license will make certain that the improvement made on the game and the code will be shared back to the community for all to enjoy.

The biggest problem is naturally that the game’s code and graphics will be quite dated by now as the game was initially released in 2004 and commercial development seems to have stopped since 2006. The good thing is that it’s now free nature will not require it to compete for price with the big commercial games and the bazaar development it will follow should hopefully allow it to challenge them for content. Still, the huge delay of 4 years and the understandable death of its community in this time will be very hard to recover.

Lets try it out and hope for the best.

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Richard Stallman is neither a leader nor a Messiah

Are Richard Stallman’s words infallible for the Free Software movement?

An image of Richard Matthew Stallman taken fro...
Image via Wikipedia

It seem to be quite a common phenomenon that detractors of Free software will attemp to bring up Richard Stallman and specifically something he might have said at one time or another, most usually quoted out of context and with the most uncharitable intepretation possible. This is then used as some kind of proof for the sinister motive of Free Software. Here’s one such example:

Stallman has repeatedly said that he thinks that programmers are overpaid and that skilled laborers should do their jobs for free or for a pittance (and therefore unskilled management is the only way to justify large salaries from technology), and it isn’t too hard to draw the inference that the GNU license, the philosophy of which makes it much harder for coders to get paid for their work, is his way of acting on his opinions.

Notice how we do not get to see exactly what Stallman said or in what context. Rather, we get the quoter’s personal interpretation which basically asserts a specific set of outcomes which looks to be the worst possible. It furthermore¬† inserts a sinister motive behind the GPL which is really requires a huge stretch of the imagination.

This is pure rhetoric people, and it’s the kind that displays intellectual dishonesty which rivals the Barefoot Bum. I can’t avoid getting annoyed when such a stunning amount of bullshit is said with a straight face because I can immediately, subconsciously even, see the logical fallacies and attempts at misdirection.

However it is important to counter the basic point of anti-Free Software tirade.

Stallman’s words are not infallible

Even if we accept the absurd intepretation such as the above as being true, even if we accept that Richard Stallman has some sinister motive behind the conception of the GNU Public License, it would still not make it the driving idea behind Free Software. The reason for this is simple: Richard Stallman is not a Messiah. Yes, he is a very influential figure in the free software movement. Yes, he is the one who can be said to have started it all. Yes, he does really follow what he preaches. But that’s it!

The arguments that Stallman makes, stand on their own accord and not because Stallman said them. However the rhetoric above tries to imply exactly that: That because he said it, it must be a part of the free software movement. But we are not a pack of sheep. We do not blindly follow what Stallman or RMS or Torvalds says (atlthough you will certainly find some individuals who are like that, same as with any public figure). We look at the arguments each of them presents, judge them and then espouse or reject them.

Thus even if Stallman’s secret plan was indeed to “eliminate independent coding as a profession”, the people would modify and implement his core idea in a way that it wouldn’t achieve this result. This is because such a result would be against the best interests of the coders that embrace it. Of course such a sinister plot is absurd on its face and the free software ideology is embraced on its merits as one promoting greater freedom for users and developers.

It is then that people with an axe to grind against FOSS imply that we’re simply being naive and being led like lamb to the slaughter by promises of freedom. There is not argument to back this up however, only shaky correlation and misunderstood economics. But this serves only as a handy personal delusion for those who make these arguments as they are incapable of explaining why people would embrace an idea that they consider obviously evil. It can’t be that they’re missing something, it must be that everyone espousing it is either stupid or evil.

The ironic part is how the people making such accusation have a double standard when public figures from the SW development paradigm they support say obviously wrong stuff such as wishing to take all the fun out of making video games. But it’s ok to quote mine and misinterpret Free Software figures because, after all, you have a point to prove.

To summarize, Stallman says a lot of things, some of the objectionable. I disagree with a lot of what he says, much like I disagree with a lot of what Torvalds or Raymond say. I may disagree with less things that Stallman says than any of the previous two figures, but this very far from deciding that the uncharitable interpretation of a paraphrased quote mine is representative of the whole free software movement and its purpose.

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Does Free Software destroy the IT Profession?

Do people voluntarily creating something for free, harm the software ecosystem and business prospects of individuals?

GNU General Public License
Image via Wikipedia

A new commenter has opened a new vector of attack against Free Software in the comments of my article about manager’s dislike for IT Pros. There he tries to argue that the proliferation os Free Software and the GPL is harming the IT profession as a whole because now that anyone can write software and the combined efforts of thousands can create as much of a quality software as any capitalist company, the demand for expensive proprietary software is decreasing and thus less programming jobs can exist as there’s less opportunity to use state granted monopolies (i.e. copyrights) to make money.

The argument relies on what makes one a “Professional” and in the words of the commenter:

As for “giving many more people the opportunity to take part in the IT profession” — that’s just an outright lie. If you ain’t gettin’ paid, you ain’t a professional — and that’s by definition; go look up the word “profession” in a dictionary if you don’t believe it. All those coders putting stuff out for free? They aren’t professionals. Even if they lived up to what are laughingly known as professional standards (which they certainly do not), they wouldn’t be professionals.

This arguments sounds very much like the classic anti-piracy rhetoric from the Recording Mafias about how file-sharing is killing the music industry. But instead of file-sharing, the author here replaces it with Free Software. But the principle remains the same. When people can get something for free (whether that is free software or free music), they will not pay for it, therefore companies will not make enough profits, therefore there will not be enough jobs for people being paid explicitly to write proprietary code for sale.

But much like the music industry argument, the software industry argument is also flawed: Just because people cannot make money via the previous business models does not mean that nobody will ever make money. The Free Software business models are some of the newest experiments in money making, much like giving your music away for free is also a new experiment in making money. Both of them are not mature yet and there’s a lot of testing and trying to make them work, but there’s certainly a lot of people who do make money out of them and even better, there’s a lot more stuff being made.

And that’s the clincher really. When people complain that an industry is “dying”, they don’t really mean that less stuff related to that industry is being made but rather that those who were already using a particular business model cannot continue doing so. The original commenter’s problem is that those who were earning a lot of money by selling software cannot continue making as much or more. Why? Because free software outperforms them for a lower cost. In short the argument is that some people cannot continue selling less value for a higher price.

Of course they set it up so that it seems that it’s the poor wage-slave coder who is taking the hit by not being able to find a job or having their wages reduced. They completely forget to mention that it’s the consumers that benefit by being able to use a better quality product for a fraction of the price. In fact, the wage-slaves of the IT world have far more to fear from the Indian outsourcing companies than from Free Software which at least, when given enough critical mass, will allow far more people to work independently rather than in a wage-slave position.

Becuase this is the main way people can make money out of coding via free software. They do not have to sell their code, they only have to sell their services as a coder. They don’t build a program and then sell it, they are contracted to build and improve an already existing product which then everyone can enjoy. Taking a holistic view, this is overwhelmingly a positive result since rather than having people rediscover the wheel every time they want to sell something (and thus end up with many different programs offering basically the same functionality), you get people improving on what came before them; standing on the shoulders of giants and improving things for everyone that comes after them.

Another common argument to this point point that is brought is how people currently work: They build a program and try to sell it. by then pointing out that free software is gratis they assume that people will simply not build programs anymore. This is usually used in conjunction with games and to show why people don’t write free software games. This argument is simply taking the current system and asserting that this is the only way it can be. They ignore that the way people work is because of the way the rules of the game have been set which make one particular path,¬† “build and then sell”, as the most optimal to make money. But the rules of the game have not been set in stone and we can and should challenge them directly when they stop making sense.

If copyrights weren’t enforced on us from the dawn of IT, the current business models would not have built themselves around them. There would certainly be a demand for software and games and that would certainly have been fulfilled, only it would have been done in a different way. To take the way the software system has evolved because copyrights existed and assert that this is the only way it can ever work and the end of the world is nigh if we challenge this is simply absurd. Free Software proves this wrong.

Sure, the biggest software companies who are sucking at the tit of the state would suffer from it and possibly some programmers earning currently absurd salaries would have to scale down their demands to be in line with everyone else in the world, but everyone else would benefit. Better software for a fraction of the cost and a far wider tail for people to make a living on. The IT Profession would go nowhere as long as a demand for it exists.

In closing, one has to ponder how completely misaligned the ethical compass of scomeone can be, when they consider the voluntary act that thousands do for free – and for the benefit of everyone else – as something wrong, because it harms the greedy and for-profit acts of a few which are based on state violence and privilege and lead to a result where most can’t even possess the results. It shows how the way the system works can become so ingrained in the mentality of someone where they cannot even look externally at it and notice that if because of the way Capitalisms works a good act can be considered “bad” while a bad one becomes “good”, perhaps there is something inherently broken in the system itself.

UPDATE: Redditors have been providing some excellent arguments to support my point as well. Take a look.

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Begging the Software Gods

Why do we have to beg the software companies to provide the functionality when we can take our fate into our own hands?

Kneel before your (Greek) God
Image by Dave Smith via Flickr

There is a frustrating phenomenon that I notice amongst many technology enthusiasts and general users, the conditioning to pathetically expect new progress from the software companies. All too often I see someone claiming to be a fan, asking, pleading, begging, wishing, warning or even threatening any software company so that they would implement a feature that they wish for.

This is the mentality of a slave. It shows that one is happy simply wait for the enlightened elite to provide them with what they believe they need. The only difference exists in how much that elite listen to their “peasants'” voices. You have many web2.0 companies which are very open to their community and you have others which are so absolutely haughty and elite that what they give you, they expect you to like.

But why do people willingly put themselves in this situation? I guess it is it they do not wish to trouble themselves too much. All that a software company requires of them is their continuous supply of money (or presence & support, in the case of web2.0 ones) and they promise to take care of everything you ever wished for. You just rest your little heads..

One wonders, would these same people willingly put themselves under “socialist” dictatorship? If not, why? Doesn’t that work in the same way as any of those software companies? Wouldn’t these dictators work with your own best interests in mind, if only you gave them your money? Wouldn’t it be possible to even modify their actions if you begged, pleased, warned or threatened enough?

‘Aha’ you will say ‘But I can at any point switch software with ease. I can vote with my wallet I can! If those companies don’t listen to my wishes I can just choose another piece of software instead. I don’t need them, they need me!’

So tell me, are you truly free, when all you have is a freedom to choose between masters? Won’t any other company be like this as well? Perhaps a bit more “consoling” to your betrayed soul, but ultimately the same? Would you be any more free if you could at any point leave your “socialist” dictatorship if there were only more of them to select from?

And what if there isn’t anywhere to go to? What if your continued support all these years has made that dictatorship so big that it has swallowed all others and now it’s either that, go live alone or start your own little commune and have only the bare basics compared to what you had before?

And what if they won’t even let you leave? What if the borders are closed and your property simply licensed to you? What if the only way to leave an oppressive dictatorship like that is to simply discard all your earthly belongings and simply leave with just the clothes on your back?

But this is what a propriertary software will try to do. Either it will be so unique that you simply cannot chose something else and you must continue paying like a good little worker or They will not let you take anything with you because of closed formats and the like.

  • Until Open Office came around, what alternative was there if one wished to move away from MS Office, say because it lacked a certain feature and MS refused to implement it or because it was simply too expensive?
  • When you leave facebook, can you take anything with you?
  • Can’t Google cancel your account at any point, without having to give you any excuse or letting you take anything back?
  • Isn’t Photoshop basically your only option as a professional graphic designer?

It is especially worrying to see people not only gladly place their own shackles but to excitedly support some of the most oppressive companies ever. Apple and its fanboys are the one that perplex me the most. There is truly here a cult of personality the kind of which any fascism regime would be proud off. The supporters will blindly trust in the wisdom of Jobs and Apple and buy and swallow any junk they throw their way, as if it were nectar. The fact that their shackles are the strongest and most numerous of them all does not matter, simply because they are also the most shiny.

But what are the alternatives? Well, like any dictatorship has its antonym in free democracy, so does proprietary software has it’s antonym in Free/Libre Software.
Do you remember my example of that little group of people who wished to escape from the dictatorship they lived under? They did. They did leave everything behind and went on to create their own little community. But they were wise, for they knew that it was only a matter of time until their society ended up like the one they fled from.
Thus, they created a constitution, a manifesto, call it what you like, which prevented them and their successors from doing just that.

That manifesto was the GNU General Public License and while they started only with their hands and the clothes on their back, their little community grew and prospered and started to draw freedom-loving people who fled from proprietary dictatorships all over the world.

Whereas a software company decides what you will have with varying degrees of input from you, the GPL community does not decide at all. Any member can have what he wants, provided that they work to get it. It is simply not possible to stop anyone from making the software do what he wants if he really wants it, unlike a proprietary software which you cannot change unless allowed to (through begging, asking, pleading etc).

Is this a harder road? Most definitely. But it is the only road that preserves your freedom. And nobody ever said that freedom is easy. Quite the contrary, freedom has always required hard work and struggle to sustain from the people comprising. From the bottom-up. But the fruits of it are always much sweeter.

The only thing you get easy, from people who make all the choices for you, is simply the illusion of freedom. And this is exactly what you get with proprietary software. And even that goes away eventually.

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Why Socialists must learn from the Free Software movement

It is my impression that the Free Software movement has one of the best recipes for Socialism. Perhaps we can apply it to real life somehow.

Image by redtux2000 via Flickr

Socialism is a very difficult thing to achieve. Up until now there have been two attempted paths towards reaching that goal: Revolution and Reformism. Neither has succeeded. The first path (usually) fell victim to counter-revolution and nowadays lacks enough traction in its necessary base, the working class. The second path always gets corrupted and sidetracked too much and simply ends up perpetuating the status quo while keeping the name.

There is however one method which not only has not been attempted yet but also shows considerable promise of success. The peer-organised, distributed, lead-by-example method of Free Software.

For those not familiar with the history of the Free Software movement, the basic thing you need to be aware of is that it was initiated in a completely hostile environment (of propriertary software), without any help “from-above”. It was simply based on a simple ruleset that ensured that the fruits of this effort would not be corrupted or misappropriated and thus lead to fragmentation. The GPL.

Thus, there was no need for leaders ((While there are some recognisable figures in the movement, they are no more leaders than Marx or Engels were)) or sponsors.

This result-oriented method has been a tremendous and monumental success. From an obscure hacker’s hobby in universities and basements, in 20 short years it has become a force to be reckoned with, respected and supported by major software players while still ensuring that they cannot abuse it for their own ends.

I believe there is here a method that not only has not yet been attempted but perhaps might be the key to finally breaking the stranglehold of Capitalism.

The method is simply to work within the system. Show people how much better Socialism can work and then, once they have given it a try for practical reasons, introduce them to the ideology behind it.

Now do not be alarmed. I am not talking about reformism but about subversion. Let me explain:

The Free Software movement is based on Copyright law. It gains power and utility by using the same system it was created to oppose! How does it achieve this? By placing additional terms and restrictions on its supporters in order to ensure that the effort they put towards the movement will always remain with the movement and not leave with them. Like a Judo master, it uses the considerable power of the system to defeat it.

Supporters come because the development method of Open Source is simply superior, it is easy to join, progressive and free. Then, not all of them, but a sufficient amount get to hear about the philosophy behind it, adopt it and continue spreading it. And guess what. It not only worked but this socialistic culture has spread outside of Software (See Wikipedia, Creative Commons etc).

To put things into perspective, lets see how the current two paths to Socialism would have worked when attempting to achieve a Free Software world.

  • Revolution: The Software developers would forcibly or simply arbitrarily take the source code of the programs they had been hired to write and distribute it to their peers. This would of course trigger a “counter-revolution” where the software bourgeois would attempt to stop such a unaccepted distribution.
  • Reformism: The Software developers would attempt to become company executives or shareholders with the purpose in mind to liberate the source code to their peers when they had enough power. Unfortunately, not only power corrupts but the people in charge would never allow one who is incorruptible to achieve power.

Not only would it have been extremely difficult for either of these methods to succeed (as has been the case with similar Socialist movements) but without having a GPL to back them up, simply releasing the source into public domain would allow the effort to be subverted by the remaining active forces, thereby giving them a competitive advantage over our (alternative universe) free software movement.

I hope you’re still with me.

So how can socialism use a similar method? How about working within Capitalism? Here’s a rough idea

  • Create a constitution of similar ideals to the GPL that is a legally binding contract. The whole point of this constitution would be to prevent the labour put into Socialism to be turned against it. For example, have the clause that once a person becomes a member, he agrees to redirect all wealth acquired as a member back to the group. He retains previous wealth (so if at any point he decides to leave, he can be as when he first joined). Thus while a member, he eschews private property.
  • Create a commune based on this constitution. People joining this commune will have their future acquired wealth redirected back to this commune which should then ensure that individual members have a much higher standard of living on the bottom end than any other system. If the commune has rules such a direct democracy and the like, based on Socialist ideology, it should also ensure that it is not corrupted.
  • Because of the superior bottom level of the commune, more people living in the bottom end of the current society will wish to join. Such individuals can easily then be monitored to make sure that they follow the constitution and rules and slowly bring them into the ideology so that they follow the rules on their own volition.
  • To preserve direct democracy, Communes that become too large should be able to split and create smaller ones. A clause in the constitution could be that any number of people can leave the commune with a direct percentage of the current wealth provided they create a new commune under the same constitution. Thus the number of people living in such communes could increase without necessitating the formation of a state system within.

Slowly, though such a system more and more communes would form until it becomes the obvious choice for the proletariat to belong in one for their own security. People could still choose to stay outside, but they would be at a competitive disadvantage. Once these communes start owning enterprises and reap their own surplus value, they will be capable of stealing the lifeblood of Capitalism. Labour.

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