Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Cory Doctorow on DRM.

I'm at ApacheCon in San Diego, where about 450 ASF hackers are locked in a hotel while the weather outside is spectacular.

Cory Doctorow delivered an excellent keynote yesterday on digital rights management. His views are clear from his writings elsewhere. I agree with him emphatically: Studios and record companies grew up during a time when the way that content got distributed was very different. Ubiquitous digital networking changes the game fundamentally. DRM is an attempt by the distribution companies -- last millenium's winners -- to prohibit new business models around content distribution, so there can be no new winners for the new millenium. DRM isn't good for artists and it isn't good for consumers. It's only good for the middlemen.

During his talk, and in a follow-up discussion we had later in the day, he made a few points that I think are worth repeating here.

First, Cory works with an organization called the Electronic Frontier Foundation to oppose DRM where it crops up. That group has been very active in monitoring and reporting on meetings of the World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO. WIPO considers, with some regularity, imposing legislation in different parts of the world so that DRM is required for use of media. The EFF attends WIPO meetings and reports on deliberations (blogging is a tremendous tool for this). Simply by showing up, the EFF has engaged WIPO delegates in a productive conversation, made deliberations more transparent and changed the way that decisions are made. DRM remains a threat and WIPO still considers it, but this is a great example of why you want to work with those whose views you oppose.

In a surprising (to me) contrast, the EFF has had little or no success in engaging Apple on its use of DRM. Apple is a huge distributor of digital media -- everyone's heard of iTunes, and my informal survey says that the iPod Nano is the only thing you need to buy your teenager this Christmas to win his love forever. Apple uses very aggressive DRM technology in iTunes and the iPod. It's impossible, using Apple-supplied tools, to move iTunes songs to competing music players. It's very hard to share content among devices, even if you own all of them. Apple regularly updates the DRM system in its products to eliminate ways that people find to share files.

Let me be clear, here, that I'm not advocating piracy. I'm talking about moving my legally-purchased iTunes recording of Royal Oil by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones from my Powerbook to my Rio MP3 player. I like it, I bought it, and I want to listen to it in the gym, but Apple says no. The EFF has tried to work with Apple to reduce the burden that DRM puts on Apple customers, but to no avail.

Now, Apple builds wonderful technology. I love their computers. An iPod is not merely a nice player, it's a beautiful object. Apple's engineers are outstanding. Many are active in open source projects (in fact, Apple ingested the open source FreeBSD operating system as the basis for its MacOS X platform). I bet that many Apple employees are FSF members.

So how is it that the EFF can engage with WIPO, and can do productive work, but not with Apple? It's really a shock to me. Apple's customers and the people who make the music would be much better off without DRM. Apple's defending last millenium's distributors, but Apple is a this-millenium kind of company. People don't buy iTunes music because it has DRM. They buy it despite the fact that it has DRM, and they hate the way that DRM interferes with their enjoyment of it.

Hey, Steve: Talk to Cory.

The second interesting point from our conversation was about ways to make DRM irrelevant. I believe that the EFF's lobbying work is important, and I'm glad they're doing it, but I don't believe it will succeed in the long term. The only real way to kill DRM is to create viable businesses that don't use it. Build content repositories that contain great music, literature and video, make them available without DRM restrictions, and then find ways to generate revenue for the creators. Steal the audience away from the existing studios and music distributors; show them that they need to abandon DRM or else lose.

I asked about that strategy explicitly. Cory points out that his own books are distributed under Creative Commons licenses, which effectively prohibit the addition of DRM technology. Other artists -- he named several, but the number is large -- are doing the same.

That's great. I'm glad to hear it. I really hope that someone with vision and enough money to do it will create the repository and distribution strategy that draws the audience. Let's get people excited about easily-shared content. Let's make certain that the sharing is legal. Let's find ways to pay the creators of the works. Where we can, let's eliminate the overhead that middlemen impose, driving costs down for consumers and making more great content more easily available.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Links for 11 Dec 2005

  • You can never have too many recipes for homemade ballistics gel.
  • The hardest math class I took in college was Differential Equations and Boundary Value Problems. We spent a surprising amount of our time talking about the ways that Slinky toys move. You can skip the theoretical work, and just go mess with a spring network with damping.
  • With a name like United Nuclear, you know it's a cool company. With a product like Neodymium magnets, you may be done with your holiday shopping early.
  • Wonderful photographs from the European Space Agency's Hubble team.
  • Nature, red in tooth and claw.
  • Speed up your Windows installation.

A great day in Monterey.

I spent yesterday morning aboard the Escapade in Monterey for a two-tank dive trip. It was the kind of day that reminds you why we live in California: Brilliant blue skies over smooth seas, with excellent conditions in the water. Visibility at the surface was about thirty feet, and at depth not much less than that.

These two pictures show our mooring at Outer Pinnacles, our first dive site, and the view of open water from the other side of the boat.

I don't have any good shots of our second dive site, at Pescadero Point, but I do have a photo of a happy diver on the trip back home.

Making the GPL.

I originally wrote this blog entry in early November, but in the press of events, I didn't get it posted. With the recent publication of the official process document by the Free Software Foundation, I remembered that I had this lingering in my drafts folder. Because this includes views from other groups, I thought it would still be useful to put it up.

I was at the GPL 3.0 panel discussion at OSBC this week. The panelists were Mike Milinkovich, executive director of Eclipse, Diane Peters, general counsel for OSDL and Eben Moglen, general counsel for the FSF. It was a collegial group; Peters is on the board of Moglen's Software Freedom Law Center, for example.

In fact, though, this was Eben's panel, and it was his message most of us had come to hear. The panel was convened to explain the process that will be used to produce the next version of the GNU General Public License. I've seen Peter Galli's coverage of the session. It was good, but I want to do something different here. I want to recap the process that Eben described in as much detail as I can, from the notes I took during the session.

What follows is, as nearly as I can make it, a recitation of Eben's (and Diane's and Mike's) points from the panel, with no editorial comments from me. This is a pretty detailed blog post from me, and intended for a specialist audience; if you don't know what the GPL is or if you don't like to read about committee deliberations, you ought to stop reading now.

The current version of the GPL, GPLv2, was produced 14 years ago by a reasonably small group of people led by Richard Stallman. The license has seen very wide adoption since, and GPL'ed software is used extensively around the world. The next version of the GPL will be GPLv3.

To begin, Eben listed four rights that the GPL is designed to protect:

  • The right to run software without obstruction, and to understand how that software works.
  • The right to copy software as much as you like.
  • The right to modify the software, including the right to make private modifications that you do not share with others.
  • The right to share the software, but to share with all of these rights passed along to others.

These right all accrue to users of the software. The GPL is a document designed to protect users' rights. Eben emphasized that those protections are intended to extend to all users of GPL'ed software, and that explicitly includes commercial users.

In producing a new version of the GPL, which is designed to protect the rights of users, it makes sense to ask users what they want. The revision process will solicit comment by the GPL user base as broadly as possible, including comments from individual software developers, groups using other licenses, commercial concerns, legal experts and others. The process will consult groups around the world.

Eben said several times, forcefully, that this process will be open and transparent. People who want to participate will be able to do so. No decisions will be made in secret. Discussions and decisions will be made public.

Eben emphasized, though, that protecting rights is work for experts, and not for the one billion people who use GPL'ed software around the world. He expects that knowledgeable representatives will participate actively in the process, but that the majority of GPL users won't choose to participate directly.

He also said clearly that this is not a democratic process. There are no votes on GPLv3. Eben expects this process to produce reasoned, intelligent feedback, which will allow the Free Software Foundation to make informed decisions about ways to protect users' rights, but emphasized that the GPLv3 will be issued by the FSF, and not by acclamation.

In the next ninety days, formal review and discussion will begin.

  • A discussion draft, accompanied by an explanatory document on the language and reasons for changes from GPLv2, will be published.
  • As many experts as possible will be invited to read and comment on the draft. (A question from the audience asked Eben about the mechanism for participation: On-site meeting? Some other forum? Eben replied that he wasn't able now to describe the mechanism in detail, but that it will allow both in-person and electronic participation, and that "it will be great").
  • From the collection of experts, committees for discussion will form. These committees should collect around particular points or issues that are important to the members, and where they have opinions and expertise that matter. The committees have responsibilities in the process:
  1. Outreach, to make sure that people with a stake in the process know that it's going on.
  2. Recruitment, to be sure that people who can and should contribute do.
  3. Discussion, to turn comments from reviewers into well-defined issues that can be debated and resolved. If the issue survives this discussion -- if the group believes that it needs the attention of the FSF -- then it continues to the next steps.
  4. Consideration, to explore as thoroughly as possible the different resolutions available for the issues defined.
  5. Resolution and recommendation within the committee, to propose the resolution that makes most sense to the committee for the issues it identified.
  6. Report to the community generally on issues and recommendations.

This process will produce a comprehensive explanatory corpus on the meaning and intent of the GPLv3. The committee documents and recommendations will be public, and will give license users insight into how the license was made.

There will be issues that transcend single groups, or that require attention from the FSF in order to be resolved. In that case, issues will go to the "Supreme Court" of the FSF (Richard Stallman will play a key role here). The documentation and deliberations of the committees will be important in considering the issues, but the FSF will make the final decision on language.

After a few iterations of this process and accompanying draft revisions of the license text, Eben expects to be able to issue a final license for adoption. On issuance, debate on the GPLv3 will end.

Eben's goal is that all GPLv2 code should be able to move to the GPLv3, and he does not want to do anything in the new license that will make that migration impossible.

An audience member asked about plans for revision of the LGPL, and Eben replied that it will be considered in the same cycle as the GPL. For practical reasons, the actual publication and discussion of the LGPL revision may lag the GPL slightly, but the goal is to have both licenses under discussion more or less simultaneously, and to issue new versions of both together.

There were several other audience questions, but I've only captured one in my notes. Someone asked Mike Milinkovich if Eclipse would consider amending its EPL license as a result of changes to the GPL. Mike replied carefully: He would be remiss not to consider the interests of the Eclipse community, and ways that changes to the EPL, in concert with changes to the GPL, could advance the interests of the Eclipse community. However, he cautioned, changing a license is a lot of work, and the EPL recently underwent revision, so Eclipse could well decide to do nothing.

(Violating my no-editorial rule: I think Mike's exactly right. The revision of the GPL presents an opportunity for other open source license authors to look for ways to clean up and reinforce the intent of their own licenses, and to consider whether they want to make those licenses more, or less, GPL-compatible. That's a tremendous effort, though -- just look at the laborious process that Eben laid out for producing GPLv3! -- so we're not likely to see wholesale revision to FOSS licenses.)

Friday, December 09, 2005

In the footsteps of Tom Payne.

The thing that most interests me about the internet is the way that it creates conversations. The combination of an easy way to publish and good search tools for finding content makes it possible for communities of interest to grow up without geographical constraints. This is a huge deal: Freedom of speech is useless if my speech can't reach your ears.

Digital publishing is great, but I never travel without real books. They're portable, durable and work even in places where there's no broadband or electricity.

I've written elsewhere about search tools for printed matter, like Google Book Search (formerly Google Print -- and the name change is an interesting story all by itself). There are some cheap-and-easy production strategies for people who want to make books, like the ones that Brewster Kahle uses in the Internet Bookmobile. Until recently, though, I didn't know about any simple and accessible do-it-yourself distribution strategy to put self-published material in front of a global audience.

Kevin Kelly's CoolTools site has a great article on how to get your books, CDs and DVDs to buyers by using Amazon.com as your sales channel. The emergence of on-line communities is exciting, but off-line communities are important, too. It's just common sense.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Links for 2 Dec 2005

  • Golden rules from people who learned them the old-fashioned way. My favorite is Penn's: Don't make deals with paper. Make deals with people.
  • Deep cluelessness, phone home.
  • A bot that digests Slashdot, Digg and Del.icio.us. Now I just need a bot that reads the digest...
  • This one's for math geeks: The number spiral turns up some surprising patterns.
  • And as long as we're talking to math geeks: Primes!
  • The PBS series Science Now has published past episodes online. They're available for download. This is a really outstanding science series.
  • Lots of chatter about Wikipedia lately. None of it matters much; the site's tremendously useful, and it's good to find ways to use it better.
  • Remember this post? Perhaps I need to become prime minister of Japan.

Sun rising?

Sun announced yesterday that it's making its entire suite of server-side software available under an open source license. John Loiacono provides some background. Jonathan Schwartz posted a teaser the day before. In fact, if you read Loiacono's post to the end, you'll see he promises more big news on December 6 -- Sun's beginning to preannounce its announcement dates regularly.

If you've been watching Sun for a while, this is no surprise. OpenSolaris clearly telegraphed the intent. Sun's been talking about releasing Java under an open source license for a long time. Schwartz's blog post links to several other earlier statements that this was going to happen.

So what does it mean?

If you're a customer, it means you can suddenly get Solaris and the applications that run on it under the same terms, and at the same price, as you get Linux and its applications. Sun's using a different open source license than the one used by GNU/Linux, but that difference matters less to IT managers than to guys like me. In practice, if you run an IT shop, you can now download, build and install the server software you need to run your business. You can choose between Fedora from Red Hat (or one of the other freely-available Linux distros) and OpenSolaris. Linux will have to compete more aggressively on features, reliability and scalability with Solaris. Customers can be happy. Competition and choice are good, and the price is certainly right.

Of course, Sun expects to sell subscriptions to IT shops running Solaris, just as Red Hat and Novell do for their Linux customers. Sun clearly hopes that the freely-available software will convince developers to build high-value systems relying on Solaris and Sun hardware, which will drive adoption of the platform more broadly.

If you're a Sun competitor, the picture is muddier.

Among proprietary vendors, Microsoft probably doesn't care much. It already had exactly this headache with Linux, and Microsoft will say that Solaris is competing for market share with Linux, and not with Windows Server. (Sun will certainly disagree). IBM has an established open source strategy and practice based on Linux already, and plenty of muscle in the marketplace to acquire and retain customers. Hewlett-Packard is likely in the worst shape among the proprietary Unix vendors. It has no clearly-articulated open source strategy, depends on hardware sales for a substantial fraction of its revenues, and will have a harder time than ever differentiating itself from IBM, Sun and the commercial Linux distributors. (HP's current struggles are distressing. Let's hope that a great company can recover its earlier success. The garage in which the company began is undergoing restoration now for eventual opening as a museum).

Open source vendors like Red Hat and Novell will be publicly dismissive, but privately concerned, about the development. Without question, Solaris will win some deployments that would earlier have gone to Linux. The key question is how many, and I can't predict the answer to that question. If the losses are mostly to roll-your-own shops that don't buy subscriptions, well, it's a shame, but not a crisis. If Solaris begins to pry away subscription contracts from Linux vendors, though, life will get interesting in Raleigh-Durham and Provo.

If you're a Sun shareholder, you hope this works. Sun's stock closed down twelve cents yesterday after the announcement, at $3.77 per share. The company is a long way into a big transition from a big-iron vendor with a lot of proprietary high-end software, to a nimble player offering commodity systems and freely-available infrastructure on a subscription basis. To make this work, Sun needs to end its reliance on large up-front equipment purchase fees, and to compete on price with vendors of Intel and AMD-based systems. Sun needs also to switch from a model that recognizes large up-front license fee payments for software, and instead move to a subscription-based revenue stream where bookings are recognized ratably over the course of the year.

Even if Sun can reestablish leadership, operate profitably and drive new growth, the cash flow, top line and income in the new business look very different from those of ten years ago. The market isn't yet assigning any significant value to the new operating model. If it begins to drive revenue to the extent that Wall Street notices, the questions will become: What is the appropriate earnings multiple for the new Sun? How does it compare to the multiple for the old Sun? Should a smart investor buy at $3.77? The jury is still out.

For Sun itself, this looks to me like exactly the right move. The decision to put Jonathan Schwartz into the key operational role was a good one. It was time to let a software guy run the company. The widespread adoption of open source development and distribution models meant that the big vendors like Sun, IBM and HP had to figure out a way to participate, before they were rendered irrelevant. Sun's making excellent progress in transforming itself. I hope that it works.

The move isn't without substantial risk. You'll see, if you read Schwartz regularly, that despite my branding him as a software guy, he runs a hardware company. When he talks about value to IT managers, he talks about delivering computer systems that use chips from AMD and Intel, but that consume less power, generate less heat and take less space than competing boxes. Jonathan claims that the main problem in the data center is the electric bill, not the software bill.

Sun's position is interesting. In the 1960s, IBM leased computer hardware to its customers, and installed and managed the software on it for free. Beginning in the 1970s, and continuing until just about today, the model was different: Buy a box, buy some software, and hire some people to keep it running. Sun is returning to a model more like the 1960s. The computers are much nearer zero dollars than they were in the 1960s, but you pay a vendor an ongoing fee to keep your combined hardware and software running, and to make sure you have the latest software all the time. Sun's not alone in this, of course. The whole move to hosted applications and subscription-based IT services do the same thing. Sun is the clearest example of a hardware vendor doing this, though.

Worth saying: I'm not a Sun shareholder. Sun's a long-term and excellent customer of my company. I was an early fan (I was at Berkeley working for Bill Joy when he left to found Sun with Andy Bechtolsheim and Scott McNealy). I have been skeptical in recent years that Sun could remain a long-term leader in a rapidly-changing technology market. Long-term leadership is hard. I'm awfully interested to see what happens next.