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.
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.