Software Freedom Day

This weekend is Software Freedom Day — a chance to celebrate the idea that you, the owner of a computing machine, should be in control of the computations done on that machine. As the owner, you should be able to run what ever you want on the machine — or be able to prevent running someone else’s software on your device. This is a notion best served by Free Software.
The SFD events are global and organized in a decentralized fashion. I see there are six events in Nigeria, for instance, including one in Bauchi state and one in Sokoto. There are two events in the Netherlands, one on the 18th in Den Haag (the Hague). Karsten Gerloff, president of the FSFE, will be speaking there, among others. The other event is on the 17th in Amsterdam at the CWI.
Also don’t forget that the 19th is Talk Like a Pirate day.

PDF Readers near you

Do you get this as well? A PDF delivered along with a message that you can use Adobe Acrobat Reader (r) to open that file?

PDF is a (relatively) open standard. It is an ISO standard (19005-1), for one thing. This also means that there are alternate implementations of the standard. And you might have good reasons to avoid the Adobe implementation. For instance the number of exploits against their implementation, or because it doesn’t run on your hardware / software platform. Most of the time I’m at a computer which is perfectly capable of dealing with PDF files through a Free (both as in speech and in beer) PDF reader, and the "download Reader" just strikes me as weird. I get these PDF files from travel agencies, hosting providers, financial advisors and local governments. I often reply asking them to update the text accompanying the file to say something like "You need a PDF reader to view this file. Get a free one or use something else." The PDF Readers (.org) site is a good place to point people and organizations. The site points out the available options and how to get a Free PDF reader.

The Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) has started a campaign to promote the use of Free PDF readers by local governments. The idea is to point out where your local government is pointing only to the proprietary software solution and to get them to adapt the text to offer more choice. There’s a contest involved, as well.

As far as the PDF readers site goes, it points to muPDF; that’s one I would personally avoid for semi-technical reasons: the code is terrible and utterly undocumented. Maybe the application works — but it’s not something that satisfies my code-readability test. Not one of the files has a license header, although the thing as a whole is licensed under the GPL version 3 or a commercial license.

Turning to the more popular — or rather, the recommended readers on Free Software operating systems — selections, there’s Okular and Evince. I use both of them fairly regularly — Evince is my fallback on OpenSolaris during those times that I’m compiling KDE. Following the links from PDF Readers to the two web pages for Okular and Evince shows a pretty big difference: the latter is focused on packages and contains a link to a how-to-compile page, while the former is all about building the software from scratch with a comment that there’s probably packages available. Neither of these strike me as a particularly good user experience. I wonder if there’s any feasible (technically and privacy-preserving) way to detect the OS so as to improve the download suggestions.

Upcoming Conferences

Two upcoming (in the fall, that is) conferences of note whose calls for papers are still open.

FSCONS: the Call for Papers is open until June 30th. FSCONS is a tremendously fun conference because it’s not just software technology, but Free Culture and other things. That means that there is more scope for learning (well, this is important for me) things outside of software. The compressed earth brick machine made a lasting impression on me last year, for instance.

NLUUG fall conference: the topic this (half) year is Security in all its aspects. You could talk about security from a systems administration perspective (for KDE, for instance, managing trust in a global distributed project with only occasional face-to-face contacts) or programmatically (for KDE again: what to do with Plasmoids and mitigating whatever security risks they might bring). This CfP is open until July 12th.

IFOSSLR #3 is out

The IFOSSLR — the International Free and Open Source Software Law Review — has published issue #3. The IFOSSLR is the only journal dedicated exclusively to Free Software legal issues. While I was the FTF-Coordinator at the FSFE it was great to see the careful legal thought put into all kinds of issues (from trademarks to license assignment to risk assessment). It’s important to have an understanding of the legal issues around Free Software (both development and deployment) that is business compatible. That’s not to say that the interpretation is adapted to suit the desires of business — no, it means that the understanding is formulated in a way that businesses understand. It’s quite important to state cause and effect or obligations and rights carefully so that businesses understand what to do and how to do it right. After all, most Free Software developers want everyone to play by the rules set out in the license.

Sometimes what’s necessary from a business standpoint isn’t what we’d like from a Free Software perspective, but there’s no basis for real complaint. The licenses say what they say (which is why you should be careful in picking a license!), and with a good understanding of what they actually mean, both developers and business using the fruits of that development can get on with what they do. See for instance this bit on the Freecom Music Pal (I have one of those too; it’s OK for listening to Country 105 but the author is right that it’s rather difficult to hack and the firmware is wretched).

The IFOSSLR is available gratis as a PDF, or you can get a printed copy via LuLu. I’d suggest the latter, because legal journals just look really impressive on paper.

As a collaborative publication, the IFOSSLR is always looking for submissions, too. See the Call for Papers for issue #4 for more information. It’s not just for lawyers — the perspective of community and developers on legal issues is really important. The practice of Free Software licensing is an interesting area because there are four (no, wait, six) parties involved: the drafter of the license, the developer using the license, the user of the software released under that license, the community (c.q. peanut gallery) of users of the license, the lawyers for each of the aforementioned parties and the courts. Getting all that to align in harmony is a big task: a task that requires communication and publication. So throw your thoughts into the fray.

Amsterdam Legal Workshop

Conference group photoThe third edition of the FTF’s Amsterdam Legal Workshop is behind us. Two days of excellent weather (for Amsterdam in April, anyway), good food and in-depth legal wrangling on a variety of to pics. Like patents and how to work to defuse them for businesses and Free Software projects. Canonical kindly provided the nicest lawyer in Europe and a speaker who could rush 168 slides in 20 minutes, so their input is greatly appreciated as well. It was good to see friends from HP as well for the engineers-and-lawyers perspective.

Each year the event brings in new faces and new topics, and we’ve grown to the point where we have traditions and can afford a little bit of silliness amongst the serious talks and the networking and the hashing-out-of-issues-left-hanging-elsewhere. So near the end of the conference I got to hand out custard cream cakes of merit and one attendee asked me “so where’s your pink whip?” That, though, would mean spilling too much KDE over into the FSFE, which is something that’s not going to happen.

That picture over there is the group photo — at least, the one I can publish, because I haven’t cleared the publishing rights to pictures of the conference participants nor the (potentially copyrighted) images on their T-shirts. And of course, even a room full of happy lawyers should not be provoked.

Planning is getting underway for next year already — that was my big failure this year, to get started early enough, so this is overcompensating a little — and we’re aiming for the same week of April, 2011 (say the 7th and 8th). Next year Easter is much later, so the workshop and the holiday clash less. Location to be decided — if we’re ever going to break free of Amsterdam, it needs to be done now.

Amsterdam Legal Workshop

Today is the first day of the Amsterdam Legal Workshop — in full I suppose that’s called the Free Software Foundation Europe’s Freedom Task Force European Legal Network yearly workshop in Amsterdam. As in 2008 and 2009, we have a room full of the top lawyers and technologists in the Free Software legal field. Thanks to the organizational efforts of Shane, Karsten, Hugo and Rainer we’ve got a full two days of talks and demonstrations. As in past years, new relationships develop as we bring different parties to a neutral, private conference. We also take stock of where we are on a global scale with respect to Free Software licensing and legal issues. Glyn Moody was kind enough to open up the conference with a talk on the (singular) conversion from analogue to digital which — as is Glyn’s wont — ties together the past and future and fields of law, biology and computer science. And from there, we’ve gone off into deep legal territory which I won’t write about, but it’s an education.

Freedom (from lawsuits, to a point)

Today (yesterday? timezones are confusing) the jury in the long-long-long-running case of SCO vs. Novell returned a verdict. on the question whether the copyrights (to UNIX) were transferred to SCO. The jury answered “no”, which bring to a sort-of-close the whole lawsuit. You can find more coverage at Groklaw (kind of gloaty, though), Ars Technica (annoying with Konqueror though) or The Register.

I say it’s sort-of-closed, simply because the decision and final verdict belongs to the judge, not the jury (as the parties in the suit had requested — see Groklaw). So things could still change around. In any case, this means (modulo final decision, appeals, and whatnot) that the copyrights to UNIX still reside with Novell and SCO has no case to bring copyright infringement suits against contributors to Linux. Novell has the copyrights, so it would be Novell’s prerogative to do so if such claims had any merit.

To put it more simply still: the spectre of suits “against Linux” on the basis of copyright infringement from UNIX is now banished. That’s a form of freedom.

[[ Another case, Palm vs. Artifex, has its first hearing today if I read the court schedules right a ways back; that’s the suit brought by Artifex against Palm for Palm using the mupdf (GPL) libraries but not shipping the sources of the PDF viewer application. A suit that, to me, exemplifies yech, gross on both sides of the suit: Palm for not doing the usual compliance move, Artifex for shipping wretched source for mupdf and bringing suit from a licensing rather than compliance angle. ]]

Freedom! (Document-wise)

Today, March 31st, is Document Freedom Day. It’s a day in which we (for some fuzzy meaning of “we”, but including at least Free Software developers) stress the importance of Open document formats. Those are formats which are documented as an Open Standard, which is to say that their syntax and semantics are both described in a fashion that is available to the public and well understood. Plain text is such a format, and it works well for certain kinds of unstructured documents — stories, essays, etc. Well, assuming you know what character encoding is used and that the hardware encoding is understood as well. If you want a little more structure, then something like LaTeX can get you markup and layout and whatnot. However, LaTeX can be a terrible mess and understanding just what a given document does can’t really be decided except by running LaTeX over it and waiting for output.

A really Open document format has a standards document attached to it, one that defines exactly what the syntax and semantics are. Preferably a standards document that is controlled by a trustworthy standards body — one in which procedures are documented and followed and where the public interest is served. That way, you end up with a document standard that is stable, well-defined and useful.

In theory, anyway.

So of course this is all hinting at ODF (OpenDocument Format), which has a specification (v.1.1) and a process for updating the specification when needed. I believe the specification itself has its issues — it really is difficult to specify syntax and semantics with rigor — but it gets the job done and, most importantly, is written in good faith and available for everyone to implement on a royalty-free basis. The latter is important because we want to play by the rules but also need to enable current and future implementations of tools that use the document format without restrictions.

Document Freedom Day focuses on ODF, but it’s about all Open document formats. And about implementations — for ODF, we have OpenOffice.org and KOffice and the GNOME office tools. There are also command-line tools and applications that process ODF files without being WYSIWYG editors. Or consider OfficeShots, the side-by-side comparison tool for ODF applications. Again something that is enabled by royalty-free use of the standard.

As I’ve been writing this, Document Freedom Day celebrations have been kicking off in various places — for instance, in Baarn, not 80km from where I live (but I’m in no state to travel there) or Slovenia.

You can find other (brief) comments on DFD from Julia Klein or Carlo Piana.

Checkin' out the goods

Just a touch of compliance today. If I wanted to do real compliance engineering, I would turn to gpl-violations.org (in Europe, and please note they are still looking for a new webmaster) or to Brad Kuhn/SFLC (in North America) to do the actual engineering and checking of product. But here’s a mostly happy story.

I spotted the LG NAS N2R1 at a local webshop. Two drives, DVD burner, UPnP, bla bla. Not something I need, but it struck me that that’s exactly the kind of device that does poorly in compliance — ships with Linux and busybox, no sources. So with my usual assumption of malice in place, I went looking. While the firmware downloads for the device (say from LG’s Dutch site) do not mention corresponding source code, the file is clearly and unashamedly a Linux image: a .zip containing a .bin which is actually a .tar containing a .tgz which is the result of tar czf – / on a Debian installation. Somehow I expected a firmware update to be a little more sophisticated than that, you know?

No README or other indications of the licenses in the firmware, but when I downloaded the users manual for the device, imagine my surprise to find pages 159-164 filled with license information: which parts of the firmware are covered by GPLv2, GPLv3, LGPL, other liceses, and a compilation of copyright notices and BSD variants. There’s a written offer for a CD with sources in the users manual. Pretty good, all in all — although of course one might consider checking that the sources are the complete corresponding sources for each firmware version.

But this brings me to a mystery point in the GPLv2. You may distribute versions of the Program in object code (section 3) under the terms of section 1 and 2 provided you offer the source code in some way. So — since this firmware is clearly distribution in object form — we need to check if the conditions are satisfied. The source code offer is ok. But what does “under the terms of Sections 1 and 2 above” mean? Section 1 is about verbatim copies of source code; section 2 is about modified versions (which might be understood to include object form). I guess the question comes down to this: does the condition in section 1, “give any other recipients of the Program a copy of this License along with the Program” apply to distribution in object form, or not?

Valentine's day

I love Free Software!Valentine’s day is approaching, and if you love Free Software, show some of that love. Send a bug report (a well-written one). Add to API documentation (someone was complaining about that on the dot). Update a wiki page.

The Free Software Foundation Europe encourages you to show your appreciation for your (fellow) friendly neighbourhood Free Software contributor. Hugs show up with distressing frequency in the KDE world, as does beer. I’ve gone out of my way to thank folks who have written useful software for me, and I’d like to recommend you to do it too.

A long time ago, in elementary school — and a primary purpose of elementary school is socialization — the words we used were “warm fuzzies” and “wet blankets” to describe different ways of interacting with people. Wet blankets tend to hang around a long time; so spread some love instead.

(Maybe this is just cover for an upcoming “ten things in KDE4 use that I can’t decide whether they’re bugs or just design decisions that I don’t like” blog post, who knows?) (Also, in spite of Tom Albers, I’m not going to be at the Dutch KDE launch event — other commitments)