Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A murky PRISM

This post isn't about free software, but about open access to scientific knowledge (oops, sorry, one and the same thing). Anyway. A new coalition called PRISM is here, and apparently its not so happy about the kinds of things our friends at Open Access are trying to accomplish. I checked out their website, which is horribly vague about who they are. But I did find a couple of (vague) gems. Here is what PRISM Is worried about:
the unintended consequences of unfunded government mandates and mandatory one-size-fits-all policies that underestimate the complexities and differing needs of the scientific community and scientific journals.

They are also worried about
Government mandates that ignore the need for sufficient and sustainable financial support for peer-reviewed journals -- whether the source of support is from users, authors, or sponsors
because these,
risk undermining the very fabric of the system of independent, formal peer-reviewed publication, a system that is of crucial importance for scholarly communication and the preservation of scientific knowledge.

Clearly the worry is about "government mandates" (I don't know what the "unfunded" in the first bit is referring to). What could such a "mandate" be? Could it be the requirement that all (or some) publicly-funded research be made available to all and sundry i.e., that it be Open Access? Now, that sounds like an onerous requirement to me. But PRISM is seriously creepy. Check out this piece by Bruce Byfield at if you feel like getting a bit more creeped out.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The US' first GPL-violation case

Apologies for this inordinate gaps in postings to this blog. My semester started, and I'm teaching three classes. 'Nuff said. Anyway, a very interesting piece of news wandered across the top of my mail inbox the other day; about the first court case involving GPL compliance problems here in the US. We've had GPL compliance cases in Germany, but this is the first one I've noted in the US. Initial reports made it sound like Erik Andersen and Rob Landley [Busybox developers] v. Monsoon Multimedia Inc., (case number 07-CV-8205, to be heard Senior District Judge John E. Sprizzo of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York; the Software Freedom Law Center filed on behalf of the Busybox developers) was headed for a quick settlement. But today, that doesn't seem to be the case any more. As Daniel Ravicher of the SFLC puts it:
Simply coming into compliance now is not sufficient to settle the matter, because that would mean anyone can violate the license until caught, because the only punishment would be to come into compliance
You can check out the SFLC's complaint as well. From the point of view of developing a body of case law dealing with the GPL, it'd be useful for this case to come to an in-court resolution, I'm guessing.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Plus ça change...

One of the explanations frequently given for the emergence and success of the free software movement is that it is simply one particular expression of a pre-existing tendency to share code.

In an effort to get started on an embryonic project concerning the social history of The User, I just finished reading Atsushi Akera's meticulously researched 2001 paper, "Voluntarism and the Fruits of Collaboration: The IBM User Group, Share." (As far as I can tell, it's only available online if you have access to a Project MUSE subscription.) While Akera seems primarily interested in the roots of professionalism in the computing industry, I was struck by a number of his observations that speak to FOSS.

Share was founded as a group of corporate users of the IBM 704 mainframe, generally composed on the individual level by directors of computing installations. The group did ground-breaking work to develop notions such as "systems programming" and "operating systems," -- Akera notes that
during this period the terms themselves were being defined in specific relation to the emerging labor structure of computing installations
-- and developed a compiler for a mathematics-intensive language, PACT, that ended up being eclipsed by FORTRAN.

Among the interesting moments in the paper:
[The focus on systems programming] followed from the computer center directors' commitment to operating efficiency. . . . As if to reinforce this orientation, Share forbade the exchange of applications programs. . . . Share used this distinction to mark the boundaries of proprietary interest.
which certainly foreshadows the logic of differentiating and non-differentiating technology deployed by Bruce Perens in his First Monday piece on "The emerging economic paradigm of Open Source." Also,
Share was established with an eye towards productive collaboration. . . . The unsatisfactory quality of IBM's programming tools and particular dispersion of knowledge provided a technical rational for collaboration.
which is a (probably unnecessary) bit of support for Raymond's principle about programmers and their itches.

One of the most interesting points Akera makes has to do with corporate voluntarism and anti-trust law:
[T]he group arguably transgressed a legal boundary by coordinating development work. By asking each installation to take on specific "assignments," Share entered a gray area that could have brought on costly litigation. Share representatives therefore began to stress the voluntary character of the work . . . . the rhetoric of voluntarism began to pervade Share's letters and proceedings.
So one implicit function of FOSS projects is in fact to provide legal cover for corporate contributors.

Finally, a note about the early connections between collaboration and reputation:
[S]ince all of Share's programs were attributed to their authors, the very distribution of programs served as a mechanism for credit. During the mid-1950s, when programmers could lay claim to no professional society, Share provided many programmers with the single most important forum in which to develop and demonstrate their skills. . . . The group also made it easier to identify . . . talent by establishing common measures of skills and abilities.
Certainly an article worth seeking out.