Is Freedom?

I rarely receive such a large response, but the piece on Free Software elicited an unusual reaction — and all of it was positive. The most interesting thing to me was learning that people, even those people who work closely with the information industry, are largely unaware of the history of Free Software. In particular, they did not realize that Richard Stallman played such a significant role as the founder of the the Free Software movement.

This is not really surprising. When you mention Free Software, or Open Source software, most people immediately think of Linux, and the personality most associated with Linux, Linus Torvalds. Undoubtedly, Linus has played a monumental role. However, it is Richard Stallman’s unwaivering adherence to ethics and the cause of freedom that originated the Free Software movement. And it is Richard who continues to act as the little angel (or devil, if you prefer) who whispers within the goodly minds of every Free and Open software developer.

Most end user consumers of Free Software remain unaware of its history and the ongoing forces that drive it. The consumer hears that Free Software is excellent stuff, and that it is free, in every sense of the word. And that is enough to know. That’s fine. In fact, it’s wonderful. Have at it! That’s what it’s there for. Software developers love that you love what they create. They’re happy to help, in fact, they’re usually honored to help. Well, sort of. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, when their creation becomes popular. But strangely, communities tend to grow around such things, and those communities exist to help. They also exist to continue the process of building creations, together. It’s a remarkable phenomenon. In a sense, it is an accidental manifestation of a virtual Socialism. No membership required.

Developers using Free Software for the first time encounter something different than end users do. First, they are happy they haven’t had to pay any money. Second, they are often astonished by the sheer scope and detail that is often available to them within Free Software. It is not uncommon for Free Software developer documentation to exceed any commercial offering by orders of magnitude. I suspect this happens because, as developers, everyone is in the same boat. And that boat should make for a comfy ride. Developers in Free Software also, refreshingly, detect the aura of science behind the tools they employ, rather than marketing. Nothing is hidden, including agendas.

One of the peculiar side-effects of writing with Free Software tools is that your conscience gets tweaked a bit. Even when you are, perhaps, building a system that is meant to be closed and kept secret for some business interest, you feel a compulsion to give back to the community in whatever way you can. This, I believe, is a universal feeling. Perhaps it even speaks volumes about our inherent nature. And it is speaking good things.

But Richard pointed out a few things in that last piece. These are things we should not forget, nor overlook. Speaking of it will require a bit of context. Free Software has been an incredible benefit to the world. As I pointed out, it’s not just about free software. It’s also a statement about freedom. In many ways, we can think of the Free Software movement as a tangible embodiment that represents and vividly demonstrates the benefits available to us from a higher order of freedom. The Free Software movement happened because someone took a stand for freedom, and other people did too. And now, all of us benefit. All of us, except for those who seek to take away freedom, to solidify their own power. There are many ramifications in this, at many levels, both societally and personally. We’ll stick to software, though, for now.


I mentioned the TiVo, which created a revolution of its own in home entertainment. The TiVo was the first digital video recorder successfully adopted by the masses. It has always run GNU/Linux. Justin introduced me to the TiVo, and when I first saw it, I was amazed at the capabilities and the sheer beauty of it operation. He had the Series I model, and he could use it just like a normal GNU/Linux computer, as well as a DVR. He could write or install his own programs on it. In fact, a whole community formed around the TiVo where people shared the interesting and amazing new programs they wrote for the TiVo, enhancing its capabilities.

I was sold. I shelled out the money and purchased a TiVo for myself, and now I can’t imagine watching TV any other way. However, by the time I purchased mine, the Series I TiVo was no longer manufactured. I purchased a Series 2. It had a faster processor, more external ports, and more upgrade capabilities than the Series I. However, TiVo had done something bad, too. They began locking down the TiVo, making it impossible to customize it to you desires, unless you wanted to do something risky and radical to gain access. In essence, they continued to take advantage of the GNU/Linux Free Software, but shackled it behind bars, claiming your system as fully their own.

This angered many people, and rightly so. However, TiVo placated the developers by releasing a software development kit, where developers were still unable to access the GNU/Linux system, but they were, at least, able to write custom applications for the TiVo — much like what Apple is doing with their iPhone. TiVo even went so far as to have contests to see who could write the best TiVo application. Many of these applications were very good and eventually found their way onto everybody’s TiVo, through TiVo’s regular software updates. Then, with the release of the Series 3, TiVo closed down all modifications, happily keeping for themselves what others had contributed as part of their own product offering.

Now, although this is somewhat nightmare-ish from the standpoint of freedom, one good thing came about. All GNU/Linux systems are released to the public with legal licensing requirements, just like commercial software. This license is called the GPL (GNU General Public License). When TiVo decided to use GNU/Linux to build their product, they were bound by this license. As a result, and only after a good deal of saber rattling, TiVo released to the public the source code modifications they made to Linux, as was required by the GPL. That may sound a little draconian on the part of the GPL. And it is. This is why:

Free Software is all about freedom (and other good stuff). If someone releases their free software under a GPL license, they get the draconian dragon. It lives within the license for a few reasons. One of the primary reasons is to safeguard the freedom of that software forever afterwards from those would would seek to take that freedom away. The GPL says, in essence, that this software is free! Take it. Use it. Give copies of it to other people. Sell it. Modify it to you heart’s content. But if you do modify it, you must give those modifications back to the community from which the free software was born. And if you sell the free software, or give it away, you can only do so under the terms of the GPL, which basically means, you must always give credit to the programmers who actually wrote it. And other people who accept the software from you must also be bound by the GPL. The freedom dragon follows along, always on vigil.

In this way, once software is made free and released to the world under the GPL, then the dragon works to keep that software free. TiVo didn’t want it to be free. They made some modifications so that GNU/Linux would work with their hardware, but they didn’t want to tell anyone else about it. In other words, they wanted to benefit from Free Software, but they didn’t want to share, and they wanted to lock GNU/Linux into their box. They still do. However, eventually they did release the modifications they made to the GNU/Linux system, which are available for anyone to use.

That is all fairly straight-forward. But as we know, corporations love their money. They like to say, “mine, mine!”, and then make you pay. The record companies are great at this. So are the movie companies. I’m sure many of you remember the CSS encryption fiasco… the young Norwegian boy who cracked CSS encryption that is used to encrypt data on DVDs… Movie companies do not want you to make copies of DVDs. CSS encryption of the DVD data was meant to thwart duplication. However, this boy figured out how to get around that encryption. He nearly went to jail… (thank goodness he was Norwegian).

Similarly, TiVo, to please movie and television companies, does not want you to have the capability to copy shows. However, if you can access GNU/Linux on your TiVo, they feel you are more likely to gain duplication capabilities. As such, they are doing all they can to keep you locked away from your hardware. They are also doing all they can to keep the software locked in.

This is bad enough. But TiVo has done something even more sinister. They are making it impossible for you to use your TiVo hardware for anything other than what TiVo wants. In other words, TiVo must have complete control of your hardware, or your hardware will not work.

They accomplish this by building hardware that expects encryption from the GNU/Linux system TiVo is using. If the hardware does not receive the proper encryption keys, the hardware will not function. So, although technically not breaking the “letter” of the GPL version 2, it does circumvent the intent via technological tomfoolery.

On first glance, it might appear that nothing is wrong with this. Why shouldn’t TiVo be able to do what they want with the hardware they build? They will still release any modifications they make to the GNU/Linux system. But, like many things that appear innocuous on first glance, the more nefarious implications are hidden in subtlety.

TiVo is, in essence, holding GNU/Linux hostage, through a veil of smoke and mirrors. TiVo is using GNU/Linux. However, they have, through hardware modifications, created a requirement that only TiVo can provide you with your GNU/Linux system. If your GNU/Linux system comes from anyone but them, your hardware will not work. This is what flies in the face of the GPL’s spirit. And, it is very terrible for TiVo to do such a thing. Currently, GNU/Linux on TiVo is no longer Free Software.

As a countermeasure, the newest version of the GPL, GPL version 3, contains language that prohibits this sort of circumvention trickery, giving the dragon some new teeth to defend GNU/Linux’s freedom, and ours. In many ways, the GPL behaves the opposite of copyright by protecting freedom instead of restricting freedom. This sort of behavior in a license is often called copyleft. Hopefully, Linus will see fit to release subsequent versions of Linux under the GPLv3, which contains the additional protections, instead of GPLv2 which does not.

So here we have an example of Freedom under attack in some subtle and underhanded ways. I will be discontinuing my TiVo service and building a free Linux MCE system, which is actually a considerable step up in capabilities (and far less expensive). This is my personal act to further the cause of freedom. I’ve been considering switching to MythTV for some time. Linux MCE is a nice bundle of free software, including MythTV. Unfortunately, this requires effort. It is why I have delayed. But I am re-convinced now, after writing this all down. My machines want to be free. Thanks to Chris for pointing Linux MCE out to me.

Apple OSX

Early in Apple’s history they aired a commercial about Big Brother and how you could escape his tyranny if you purchased a Mac. Today, Apple can control aspects of your iPhone without you even knowing. And your computer. Just like Microsoft. In essence, your computer is fundamentally more under their control than it is yours. That is not Free Software.

With OSX, the operating system from Apple that runs newer Macs, Apple has taken a peculiar turn. Apple needed a new, modern operating system for their hardware. They wanted something flexible so they could easily develop, and they wanted something both secure and rock solid. They chose Unix.

Today Apple’s OSX is really FreeBSD Unix. Apple takes FreeBSD, makes some modifications, and re-releases it as an operating system called Darwin. They don’t release their modifications to FreeBSD for ARM CPU’s, however. Those are the CPU’s used in the iPhone. I am not certain about the legalities of this — much of FreeBSD is released under a different license than the GPL. This FreeBSD license does not have provisions to require people to contribute back to FreeBSD.

Regardless, Apple is certainly taking something that is free, exploiting it, and taking away that freedom. Apple will attack any person or company that installs OSX on any hardware that is not built by Apple. In this way, Apple is playing the same game TiVo is. Take something that is free, exploit it, then lock it into a hardware cage where only you have the key. Such an ugly thing, from something as beautiful as Apple products.

Interestingly, too, even if you install Darwin on your computer, you will not have the Apple desktop, nor will you be able to run any of the Apple programs that are so wonderful to look at on that desktop. Apple releases what they feel they should, but it stops there.

Apple is far from a model for Free Software. They happily take from Free Software, but they immediately entrap it. Microsoft does the same. And even as Microsoft takes from Free Software, at the same time they enjoy threatening Free Software with their patent claims. They say, anyone who dares to use and contribute to Free Software is in danger. Thankfully, the Free Software community has been busy on the patent front, as well, and companies like Microsoft and Apple are violating some.

Carry a Big Stick?

These are just two small examples taken from the last piece, addressing some of the concerns Richard raised. It was originally my intention to focus only upon the good stuff that Free Software has brought us, keeping the ongoing war against Freedom hidden. Usually people do not like unpleasant things. There is a tendency to stick your fingers in your ears, cover up your eyes, and run away. Just mind the big pits in the dark.

Unfortunately, we sometimes need to look at the unpleasant. War happens for a reason. The true reasons may not always be clear, and, in fact, may be hidden. Just as I hid them. But the underlying reasons are what contain the broader truths. And broader truths are always important.

A root concept within the struggles of Free Software to remain free is this notion of “intellectual property”. There is a prior post called Healthy Intellecual Symptoms you might want to read for some background information. Keep in mind that copyright (and copyleft) are different from patents. Basically, the question is, can we own thoughts? And if we can, should we?

The piece I just cited goes into some details related to problems we encounter when we try to own intangible things, like ideas. If we believe we can own ideas, the inevitable question arises: where does the scope of this idea begin and end? If I patent, say, clicking on a link with a mouse, does this mean that a patent issued for one-click shopping infringes upon my patent? How about 2-click shopping?

Suppose I invent a new and revolutionary machine. It’s a new way we can interface with computers. This is a tangible, physical object. That’s normal ground for patents. But now let’s look to the intangible patents. Should I be able to patent all possible fundamental uses of this new physical device, as well as the device itself? Can I patent one-eye-look shopping, instead of one-click shopping? Can I make all these new patents on intangible things, before I even release my hardware to the public for sale?

The notion of “intellectual property” is excellent business for patent lawyers. However, it also stifles creativity and innovation. Imagine if the TCP/IP protocol were patented, requiring the payment of royalties for its use. Imagine if Domain Name services required royalty payments. You would be effectively “taxed” for every use of the Internet. Thankfully, we don’t have that. As a result, we can use it, and contribute things to each other across the Internet freely.

Microsoft readily admits that it perceives Free Software as a threat. It also believes Free Software is its main competitor. Free Software is free, so it really doesn’t care what Microsoft thinks. Until Microsoft starts attacking it. By threatening users of Free Software with lawsuits. By scaring businesses who choose Free Software; saying they are violating the law. By funding ridiculous and wasteful lawsuits through other companies, like SCO.

Fortunately, the history of the Internet is difficult to erase, and we see Free Software vindicated on every front. But this doesn’t deter Microsoft. Microsoft has been very busy patenting ideas. Even ideas that were not their own, yet the desire to own. Patents on ideas are like fabricating an arsenal of bombs for warfare. If you have bombs, and deep enough pockets, you can easily prevail over the smaller people, who are the ones supposedly protected by patents. But Free Software has gathered a patent arsenal of their own, in response to threats. And Free Software has many friends, including legal scholars and lawyers, who are happy to do their part in the name of Freedom. So far, this has pretty much kept the patent dogs at bay, curtailing any full-scale confrontations.

If this were not enough, Microsoft has another favorite assault tactic. They call it, “embrace, extend and extinguish”. However, it might be more accurately called, “steal, corrupt and behead”. This is where Microsoft identifies a protocol, data format or program, usually innocent and free, that they either like and want for themselves without competition, or view as a threat. They take it (embrace it), then change it so that it only works with Microsoft products (or sometimes best with) (extend it), and then claim it as their own, forever afterward a part of their closed, proprietary software offerings (extinguishing it). Oftentimes the effect can be devastating to other companies who originally created or rely upon those technologies. Microsoft uses their monopoly position to provide their users with the Microsoft corrupted technology. Then, when this Microsoft corruption becomes the de facto standard, they disallow other companies from using the very technology they “embraced” and “extended”. That’s the “extinguish” bit.

In a sense, this is exactly what TiVo is doing, and very much what Apple is doing with OSX. The only difference is, they are not doing it with the intention to extinguish Free Software. They just want to make a buck. And they are not concerned with any impact they might have upon Freedom while making their buck.

So there you have it. A brief glance into the sordid underbelly of a mostly invisible war. Do not think for a moment that the war’s outcome will leave you unaffected. Many of the same ideologies being fought for are relevant within other sectors as well. Fair use of the Internet, otherwise known as Net Neutrality, shares much in common with Free Software. As does openness in government, through the efforts of such organizations as The Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Actually, when thinking about it, I realize that the tenets within Free Software are similarly shared and held dear by many human-oriented organizations. And unquestionably, the thread that each holds in common is, a firm commitment to fight for what is right and ethical in the world.

So throw off those shackles, me hearties! Ok, so I’m a day or so late. Silly pirates, anyway.