Software As Cultural Artefact

You may recall I attended a meeting in Paris last November where we worked on a statement about the cultural value of software. I am delighted to say it has now published both a call for action by UNESCO and a report explaining in more depth.

This is the first work of public policy of which I’m aware that explicitly recognises “that the source code of software used for the implementation of laws and regulations defines the experience of the law by citizens.” That important statement forms the anchor for much change in global legislation relating to digital rights, and as a UNESCO Call it will be considered by each and every future UNESCO policy and consequently by national policy of UNESCO members. Notably, it calls on all to “enable effective independent auditing of software source code used to make decisions that may affect fundamental rights of human beings and where possible ensure it is made available under an open source license.”

Software embodies the procedures by which the citizen engages with the state, through which the citizen and the market interact and in which citizens engage each other and enjoy cultural and leisure pursuits. Our ability to see society in action and guarantee the democracy that sustains it is increasingly dependent on our ability to review the software by which it is enabled at every level. When we have no right of review – let alone a right to directly participate in maintaining the software –  we have lack the most import of the checks and balances of a 21st century democracy.

The Paris Call identifies software as a primary cultural artefact, requiring public access, demanding preservation and deserving cultivation. It sets a benchmark for the treatment of software as modern treasure. Now its the turn of the framers of wider policy to take that into account.

FLOSS Weekly 510: YottaDB

Simon seemed to enjoy discovering that the era in which he started his career (the 80s) still has resonances today. In an experience he describes as “akin to finding a live trilobite on a fossil beach”, FLOSS Weekly 510 discovered that the MUMPS database GT.M is still alive, is now open source under the AGPL, is called YottaDB and is going strong. GT.M was (and is) the original NoSQL database, powering healthcare long before anyone thought to call it NoSQL.

YottaDB demonstrates one of the great strengths of open source, public escrow. While the copyright holders of GT.M have no interest in a public project, releasing it under an OSI-approved open source license has liberated the code and allowed K.S. Bhaskar to start a new kind of company to make it globally available.

Settling Scores With Giants

A UK national newspaper approached me to write an opinion piece about the copyright directive vote today, at short notice. When I asked to be paid for my work, they suddenly decided to just treat it as a “written interview”. Seems wanting to see authors paid is only an issue when they’re not the ones paying. I stopped as soon as I heard, but already had a rough unpolished draft so – here it is.

 

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There’s a vote in Strasbourg this week about copyright rules. The pretext is an update of the original 18 year old copyright directive to make it fit for the Internet age. But there’s something strange going on, fuelled by legions of lobbyists paid with old money. The thinking behind the copyright directive will only #fixcopyright for the dragons of content who want to harm the giants of tech. That “dragons vs giants” conflict will just leave the rest of us smaller creatives trampled, burned –  and unpaid.

Change Due

There’s no doubt that we need to revisit copyright for the digital age and make some adjustments to the rules. When the original directive was negotiated in the 90s the Internet as we know it was in its infancy. But in the midst of all the necessary change, some dark forces have been at work to settle scores with the young upstarts of the Internet age — with no concern for who else gets hurt in the process.

I make part of my living writing and am a published author, so I have the greatest respect for the idea that people who create things should be paid for their work. I’ve also spent my career in the software industry, with a special interest in Open Source Free Software — the community-collaborative approach that’s built the software which today runs the world. Success there depends entirely on copyright law, so you’d expect me to be a massive fan – and I am.

There are many ways to use the rights which creators get to their work. Sometimes simply being paid by other people to enjoy the work is the answer; I am very keen on any publisher paying me to write this for you, for example (narrator: they didn’t)! But there are other approaches.

If I want to collaborate with a group of people to make the computer software that runs my web site, I may prefer to make the use of my copyrighted code freely available to the other people sharing the work with me, and give them the freedom to improve it and share their work with others too. Doing that means I can easily work with the best programmers in all the different companies that use the software. I’ve not “given it away” — I get value from my copyright by sharing their innovation and maintenance of the software.

I might also prefer to use my copyright in my writing (or if I were a musician, in my music) to excite new readers and listeners who wouldn’t pay for what they don’t know. As publisher Tim O’Reilly once said, “The problem for most artists isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity.” I might choose to make my book or music available freely for download to build a fan base that will buy printed versions or attend concerts. People who did that wouldn’t be “pirates” but prospects.

Not just money for the middle man

So here’s the problem with what’s going on with the copyright directive. It doesn’t recognise that any of these alternative approaches to using copyright exist. The background thinking is infused with the views of a world where only corporations care about copyright, citizens only consume it and any other behaviour must therefore be wrong. It lacks any viable understanding of other worlds – such as mine – where copyright is freely licensed to enable valuable returns like developer collaboration, consumer network effects, small artist exposure and new author visibility. Instead its old-world thinking is anxious to preserve the significant funds skimmed off by the middle men of publishing.

It’s thinking that’s not too worried about most of the actual creators – just the big-money ones. They’re keen to preserve a retired superstar’s pension but not too bothered about my income, because only one of those makes the publisher rich.

The Dark Arts

It’s worse than just self preservation though. The proposed effects swing dramatically in the opposite direction. Whoever the dark fingers pulling the strings are, they want to shut down any and all new avenues of creativity.

  • Want to link to a web site? The proposals want you to negotiate a copyright license first (article 11).
  • Want to host writers on your web page? The proposals want to assume everything uploaded is pirated until proven otherwise (article 13).
  • Using open source software on your web site? The proposals can be understood to open you to high compliance and liability costs (article 13).
  • Doing research for a project? Text and data mining may be restricted to formal institutions (article 3).

All these – and many more – are being gleefully pursued in the name of stifling Google and Facebook, but because they arose in minds imbued with the business norms of the industrial revolution, they have no concept that individual citizens might be impacted as well. They accuse people like me of being “paid by GAFA” to oppose them, rather than recognising their lobbying tramples on our work.

The process at the Parliament is only half of the activity – the European Commission also has a set of proposals it wants to see implemented. It’s quite hard to say who exactly is behind each specific friendly-fire-prone measure on both sides. The text in Parliament is emerging in a constant flurry of drafts and amendments that make it impossible for a normal person to keep track. Even the few people working to defang these proposals in Brussels are struggling to find what text will actually appear in front of the Parliament until it’s too late.

But more ominously, there are insiders supporting the copyright extremists in both places. The official Twitter accounts of a number of Commission bodies have been pumping out partisan misinformation throughout the process, and representatives of the Commission have been remarkably dismissive of concerns, preferring to wave them away as the work of the “tech giants” with no regard for the “content dragons” whose paws seem to occupy every puppet that pushes back at me.

It’s Not Over

That’s why I will remain concerned whatever happens in Strasbourg this week, even though the Parliament vote is just a step in a longer process. The next stage after the Parliament decides on its goals will be “trilogues” as the Parliament, Commission and Council meet to harmonise their respective proposals. Given the propensity of insiders to allow their thinking to be dominated by the “content dragons” and to dismiss the concerns of new model pioneers like myself as “just the tech giants trying to derail us” I have great fear that we’ll see a repeat of GDPR here. That showed us measures supposedly protecting European citizens actually inflicting extensive collateral damage on small innovators while hardly inconveniencing the multinational giants who were supposedly in the cross-hairs. When dragons settle scores with giants, it’s the little people who get trampled and burned.

 

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Should we celebrate the anniversary of open source?

Tomorrow here in Portland at OSCON, OSI will be celebrating 20 years of open source. I’ve had a few comments along the lines of “I’ve was saying ‘open source’ before 1998 so why bother with this 20 year celebration?”

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That’s entirely possible. The phrase is reputed to have been used descriptively about free software — especially under non-copyleft licenses — from at least 1996 when it appeared in a press release. Given its appropriateness there’s a good chance it was in use earlier, although I’ve not found any reliable citations to support that. It was also in use in another field well before then, to describe military or diplomatic intelligence obtained by studying non-classified sources.  Continue reading

The Legislative Disconnect Of The Meshed Society

What is the “meshed society”? It is people, joined together by the Internet, able to interact — to collaborate, to create, to transact and to relate directly with each other — without the need for another person to mediate or authorise. As we discover more and more ways to disintermediate our interactions, society is transformed: from a series of hubs with privileged interconnecting spokes intermediating supply to consumers at their tips, into a constantly shifting meshed “adhocracy” of temporary connections, transactions and relationships of varying length. In the adhocracy, individuals play the roles of user, repurposer, maker, buyer, investor and collaborator in a constantly changing spectrum of combinations.  Continue reading