August 17, 2008
Left Meets Right

The most important geek news of the week is the court decision (PDF) in the case of Jacobsen v. Katzer, in which a violation of a non-traditional copyright was held to be just like a violation of a traditional copyright, with the same enforcement mechanisms.

The copyright holder in the case is Robert Jacobsen, the lead developer of the Java Model Railroad Interface, a software package used by model railroad enthusiasts. A firm called Kamind Associates downloaded parts of Jacobsen’s project, stripped out the copyright notice and other identifying information, and began redistributing the modified version without Jacobsen’s approval.


JavaModelRailroadInterface.jpg


Copylefts, as they’re sometimes called, grant more rights to users than traditional publishing or media organizations have. The Creative Commons Attribution license recently added to our sidebar is the “By” license, the loosest level: anyone is free to redistribute, remix, and make commercial use of licensed material, as long as proper attribution is included.

More restrictive options exist as well. It’s possible to prohibit commercial use, or to allow redistribution only if the redistributed work itself carries an equivalent license, for example. If you want to license your website, you can do it in five minutes: first choose the appropriate license at the Creative Commons site, then copy and paste the HTML that’s provided wherever you want it on your web pages.

This is good news for Flickr users and bloggers and other such folks who want to share the products of their imaginations or skills. But it’s particularly great news for the free software community. I’m thinking there were some glum faces in Redmond this week, out of which Bill Gates, as I’ve said before, hauled ass at a propitious moment.

At the personal computer level, free software is today both more powerful and easier to use (and maintain) than corporate software. What keeps the dinosaurs going is control of the hardware environment, and specialized applications. Linux has to work everywhere, with every language and font and screen and central processor and network interface; Windows systems are much more proscribed, and the Mac is another universe. Macs have cool media-creation and -editing apps, for example; Windows programs in that area are improving, but it’s hard to make a quality product in a Windows environment. I’m not kidding; I’ve built apps on Windows, Mac, Unix, and a couple other OSs, and Windows is the least reliable. Mac is probably the quirkiest; a fair amount of it is there just to be different. Unix is superficially the most obscure, but in fact the most sleekly and reliably designed of the three (though DEC’s VAX/VMS far surpassed Unix).

In the classic critical-mass fashion, state-of-the-art media manipulation software hasn’t yet migrated to Linux. But for the more quotidian operations such as browsing the web, doing email, cataloging, watching, and listening to media, fiddling photos, and doing MS Office-style stuff, the Linux tools are superior in function and ease of use. Plus, they’re almost universally faster at the same operations.

This kind of quality has not always been there in open-source software, it’s true; but then commercial software is no walk in the park either.

Generally, open source has an outstanding record of providing reliable and useful software. If you spend the effort to build something, package it, and distribute it for free, you must actually have some ego invested in it. If you care about it enough to maintain it over a period of years, coördinate assistants in that process, and accept contributions and consider requests from users, it becomes something like your child.

This kind of approach tends to create communities. When the original impulse is to solve a problem, and the first contributors all face that problem and are coöperating on solutions, what emerges has passed all the tests that its designers thought of, which means at least it solves the original problems. Things that work well tend to get adapted to other situations rapidly; if your product doesn’t evolve, it was probably a pretty simple idea to begin with. If users are soon thinking of uses you never imagined, that’s a sign of success.

The court ruled in Jacobsen v. Katzer that copylefts are enforceable as copyrights, overruling a lower court decision that this was not a copyright violation but a violation of contract. Copyright laws are much stricter, so this and some prior, more limited, rulings are clear encouragement to the free software community. Work can be done in a non-capitalist fashion, and distributed, used, and relied upon world-wide, without the capitalists either stealing it or shutting it down.

As ours becomes better than theirs, they’ll go under.

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Posted by Chuck Dupree at August 17, 2008 12:48 AM
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Comments

Ah, the good old VAX/VMS! superb command-line interface, solid architecture. It's too bad the DEC guys were too short-sighted to accept the open architecture model. Unix won that battle. Now we all love Linux and the whole idea of open-source. But Windows is so entrenched in corporate environment that most of the time Linux is not even an option.

Posted by: on August 17, 2008 4:26 AM

Yeah, Ken Olsen couldn't make the leap from proprietary systems to commodity hardware. It would have been impossible to maintain the level of support DEC customers were used to, so the elegant DEC implementations were lost or subsumed.

The VMS command language, DCL, was a thing of beauty. I once had a cubicle across the aisle from the group, I think it was about 20 or 25, that owned the command language. Anyone who wanted to add a command had to run it by them, and they had veto. Your command had to be an English word that related to the action it performed; none of this "awk" and "grep" bullshit. It had to fit into the existing hierarchy; it had to be possible to abbreviate it uniquely to four characters; and similar restrictions applied to the parameters.

That might sound like overkill, but I kid you not, it was possible to realize that there must be some command for an operation you'd just thought of, imagine what the command would be, type it in, and have it work as you expected the first time. Hmm, what it would it be, maybe it's this, yep! That is evidence of design, and it's rare enough in today's world. Plus the file system was better than Unix's, you could make directory and file references that can't be made in Unix. But they took too long to open up the specs, and when they did it was too late.

As to Linux vs. Windows, the corporate world is, I agree, only moving away from Microsoft slowly. But Vista has been a wakeup call, and Linux is becoming easier to install than Windows (on my desktop I was on the net in less than an hour after I stuck the CD in), and more and more applications are available. When I moved to Linux I didn't change browsers, emailers, text editors, office software, or chess databases; there were versions of all my software on Linux already. And the media software alone is enough better to warrant switching. Or at least making a dual-boot system, which isn't as complex as it might sound; my mother deals with hers just fine.

Posted by: Chuck Dupree on August 17, 2008 5:14 AM

A verse for Digital Equipment Corporation:

Can it be the sorry sun is rising
Guess it's time for us to book it
Talk about the famous road not taken
In the end we never took it
And if somewhere on the way
We got a few good licks in
No one's ever gonna know
'Cause we're goin' out of business
Everything must go

— Steely Dan, “Everything Must Go
Posted by: Chuck Dupree on August 17, 2008 5:24 AM
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