What exactly does it mean when Richard Stallman says that the Creative Commons' Attribution-ShareAlike license has a "Weak Copyleft"? Why exactly is it that "Freeware" and "Non-Free Software" mean the same thing, while "Free Software" is something else entirely? And what is this business with "Free Beer", and where can I get some? If you've asked yourself these questions, this column is for you.
Free software exists in a kind of "special trade zone" within the existing copyright system, defined by free copyleft licenses like the GNU General Public License (GPL). Free culture has created similar zones with tools like the Creative Commons' licenses. We usually consider that to be sufficient. Yet we are often frustrated by the desire to interface with the rest of our culture, and sooner or later we'll all have to face the big bugbear that is reforming the copyright system. Aside from a few vested interests in the entertainment industry, nearly everyone hates the system we've got -- it's clearly overreaching and ill-adapted to the electronic world of the internet. But what sort of system would we like? That's much more contentious. Here's a synthesis of a few prominent ideas of what real copyright reform might look like.
There seems to be no respite from the predations of Microsoft FUD and the machinations of Big Business. Just when it seemed safe to come out of the closet and admit to being a user of free and open source software without being accused of being a Communist, it appears that we are now criminals too--even if we are not using pirated versions of proprietary software. The culprit this time is something called "Special 301", an annual review of the status of foreign intellectual property laws carried out under the auspices of the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) which is an Executive Office of the President. It's definition of criminal would make criminals of every single user of FOSS.
It can be hard to get paid for producing free-licensed works. Software represents a niche where a lot of exceptions can be found, but for aesthetic works, the problem is severe. This has spurred a lot of innovative ideas for better incentive systems. Along the way, though, the most obvious and simple solution has mostly been overlooked: just re-implement the traditional limited copyright idea in a way that makes sense for the 21st century. Here's a simple solution that I call "FLOW-IT" for "Free Licensing Of Works -- In Time," which simply leverages existing Creative Commons licensing to do the job.
Some time ago I wrote an article about Jim Kent, an American biologist who used free and open software to race Craig Ventnor to the finishing line, sequencing the human genome. That was very big, cutting edge science with a global audience and reach. We live in an age when big science is done, overwhelmingly, in big businesses, universities, research labs and government laboratories. In Eric Raymond's paradigm it is the culture of the Cathedral.
In the proprietary production world, what matters about a copyright is who owns it. In the free production world, however, who owns a copyright is relatively unimportant. What matters is what license it is offered under. There is a very simple rule of thumb about the best license to use: use a "free, copyleft license". Such licenses provide the ideal balance of freedom versus limitations, and projects that use them are overwhelmingly more successful than ones that don't.
Terry Hancock seemed to raise a few hackles when he presented case recently that "copyleft has no impact on project activity?!)". I'm not certain why, because it seemed he was just asking a question really (you'll note the question mark). In that piece he mentions the reasons developers choose a copyleft licence. As a -- somewhat small-time -- developer of free software this topic interests me. Terry made a few statements about why developers choose a copyleft licence as did Tony Mobily in his editorial for issue 20. So let me tell you why this developer chose (and continues to choose) a copyleft licence?
Recently, I collected some data from Sourceforge, hoping to find evidence for the importance of copyleft. But I found something surprising: although there's plenty of evidence that many developers believe in the power of copyleft, the one measure I could derive of how much copyleft actually works showed that copyleft made no difference whatsoever! If true, this means a lot of free software's social theory is wrong and many things will have to be re-thought.
By rights, copyright really shouldn't apply to binary executables, because they are purely "functional" (not "expressive") works. The decision to extend copyright to binaries was an economically-motivated anomaly, and that choice has some counter-intuitive and detrimental side-effects. What would things in the free software world look like if the courts had decided otherwise? For one thing, the implementation of copyleft would have to be completely different.
Hypothetical? Academic? Not if you're a hardware developer! Because this is exactly what the law does look like for designs for physical hardware (where the product is not protected by copyright).
When the story about Microsoft shelling out $100,000 to Apache for ASF sponsorship broke across my radar it rather tickled my funny bone and my curiosity. When ASF Chairman Jim Jagielski declared that "Microsoft's sponsorship makes it clear that Microsoft "gets it" regarding the ASF" I had a fit of the giggles--and then, like many others, I started to ponder on the reasons why and what it actually meant.