Matt Butcher reports on the North American Computers and Philosophy (NA-CAP) conference that had FOSS and Open Access as its two main topics.
For example, Samir Chopra and Scott Dexter, one a philosopher, the other a computer scientist, presented a paper on the so-called “Freedom-Zero Problem” with the Free Software Definition: How can one claim that it is morally responsible to mandate the unrestricted access to and use of code even in cases where this will certainly lead to harm? For example, why doesn’t the GPL forbid Free Software from being used in nuclear weaponry, or for torturing other humans? This ethically charged issue reappeared in numerous conversations throughout the conference.
Chopra & Dexter have a blog and they have just published the book Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software. Read the introduction. This is how Steven Weber thinks about the book:
In Decoding Liberation, Samir Chopra and Scott Dexter recapture and extend a part of the conversation that will ultimately be much more important than business models, patent and copyright law, or total cost of ownership for a piece of software. What does the open source model offer to political, artistic, and scientific freedom, and thus to the human enterprise of creativity beyond the guts of a computing machine? Their book is an eloquent, thoughtful, adventurous, and exciting dive into what really matters about changing the rules of code.
I hope to have time to read the book one day.
Some picks from the program:
- The Freedom Zero Problem: Free Software and the Ethical Use of Software
Samir Chopra & Scott Dexter
- Acting for the Best and Acting Legitimately: Challenges Facing the Stronger Claims of the Free Software Movement
- The Free, Open Source Option as Ethic
- Open Source Philosophy and “Democratic Rationalization” in Africa
Evaristus O Ekwueme
- The Missing Link: Computer Ethics and Formal Methods
Darren Abramson & Lee Pike
- Panel: A Skeptical Look at Wikipedia
Panelists: Tony Doyle, James Caufield, Don Fallis & Marc Meola
- Web 3.0 – Tools for Co-operation? Social Philosophical Remarks on the Desirable Possible Future Development of the Internet
Some of you might find it interesting that Nils Torvalds, a journalist and the father of Linus Torvalds, was today elected as one of the three vice spokespersons of the Swedish People’s Party. The party, founded already in 1906, defends rights of the Swedish speaking population (5.5 %) and positions itself somewhere in the centre-right. In March 2007 parliamentary elections the party got 4.57 % of the votes. Torvalds, on the other hand, is a former Communist Party member who still seems to be quite on the left: he’s critical towards globalisation and NATO and emphasizes social policy issues. His platform from the March 2007 parliamentary elections includes two interesting points which I translate here:
- “We have a copyright law that makes majority of our children criminals – this is not wise.
- The law must be changed to meet the people’s morals instead of following the needs of monopolies to make big profits.”
Perhaps we can see some influence of his son here – although Linus is very non-political.
This blog has been silent for a year now. One reason for this is that I have started a second degree, this time in law (University of Turku). Studying takes a lot of my time.
However, I’m still working for the OSSI project (part-time). We study company participation in free/open source software companies. You can find our research reports on the site. Also worth mentioning is a chapter on Richard Stallman’s philosophy in the Handbook of Research on Open Source Software: Technological, Economic, and Social Perspectives that I wrote with Tere. I’m also a co-author in The Protestant ethic strikes back: Open source developers and the ethic of capitalism that appered in First Monday. We are also participating in the OSS2007 in Limerick, Ireland in June.
Journalist Richard Poynder is publishing a series of quality interviews with key free/open culture people, including Richard Stallman (Free Software Foundation), Linus Torvalds (the Linux guy), Lawrence Lessig (Creative Commons), Michael Hart (Project Gutenberg) and others.
Go read his interview with Richard Stallman. Some issues are always repeated in all Stallman interviews, so some of you may want to skip the usual talk about MIT, Symbolics, GNU and Open Source Initiative, but what I found interesting and novel here are his views on non-functional works.
Stallman is known to demand freedom for all software use, commercial or non-commercial. With works of art, he seems to have a slightly different opinion:
However, for some works of authorship and art, the issues are different. Music, for instance, is generally not a functional work, it is in the category of artistic and entertainment works. As far as this category is concerned I believe people should always have the freedom to non-commercially redistribute exact copies of the entire work. That is the minimum freedom that everyone must have for those kinds of works. (Emphasis added.)
This seems like he’s adjusted some of his views. Does Stallman now think that authors and publishers do have a moral right to their music, and therefore commercial distribution can be restricted to rights’ holders?
Stallman as although seen programs and literary works as different, requiring different definition of freedom. This is reflected in the GNU Free Documentation License that allows non-modifiable parts in documentation. Stallman believes in a kind of authorship that doesn’t exist in computer programs but exists in works of art, essays and scientific texts:
However, when it comes to scientific papers I don’t think people should have the freedom to publish modified versions; modified versions of someone else’s scientific article are not a contribution to society.
There is a controversy in the Debian project over the definition of freedom in literary works. The GNU Free Documentation License is seen as non-free by many developers (see draft position statement). The issue was cleared a bit in the General Resolution of February 2006 that decided that “GFDL-licensed works without unmodifiable sections are free”. But there is still a disagreement about what freedom means for different kinds of works. Debian still does not accept any work that prohibits commercial distribution or modification.
I look forward to reading more interviews from Richard Poynder. Please note he is asking for donations. I haven’t made a Paypal donation before, but this time I felt like giving a few euros for such quality work.
For a software company, making a product free/open source software (FOSS) or participating in such a project is sometimes a wise business decision. However, for the effort to be succesful, the company must know how FOSS communities work and how they interact with companies. The OSSI project is an attempt to increase our understanding on the topic.
Karl Fogel has written a good practical guidebook from such a point of view. The book is
Producing Open Source Software. How to Run a Successful Free Software Project (O’Reilly 2005). The book is also available online under a Creative Commons license.
Fogel starts by describing how to start a new project effectively. Like Jamie Zawinski said, a FOSS license is not a magic pixie dust that will bring lots of developers to your project. For this to happen, the project must be attractive, it must be easy to start with and it must be promising. The developers don’t want project documentation, they want code. They don’t want management structure, they want screenshots. They want a free and open license. Unless the basic technical infrastructure is there, it is hard to have the project going.
After the infrastructure, he moves on to discuss project structures. The project can be a (benevolent) dictatorship, a skills-based meritocracy or some issues are decided by a vote. Because the structure is often informal, whether a company may affect the outcome of the project depends on the actual company developers working on the software. If the developers are skilled and receive respect from other community members, they will have a say on the future direction of the software.
Chapter five on money is particularily interesting. Fogel describes different ways of company participation and discusses the benefits and problems of paid developers in a volunteer community.
Other chapters give advice on communications, release management and how to attract and treat volunteers. Volunteers, after all, are essential. If the volunteers go, the project will, if not die, at least change dramatically. Chapter nine is on licenses and copyright ownership and assignment.
I think is the best practical guidebook to FOSS I’ve seen so far. I recommend you to take a look.