Apple and software freedom clashing again

Another app has to be removed from the Apple iTunes mobile App Store. This time, after GNU Go, it’s the iOS port of the popular free VLC Player because the terms of the GNU General Public License are incompatible with those of Apple’s store.

Difficult situation and I still think that the best way out is for FSF to sponsor a mobile app repository for free software applications. What would be better?

via How to avoid public GPL floggings on Apple’s App Store | ZDNet.

Beyond removing GNU software from mobile stores

Last week the Free Software Foundation asked Apple to either remove the game GNU Go from the iTunes App Store or change the terms of service on it. Apple chose to simply remove GNU Go from the store and the move was not a surprise, as FSF Compliance Engineer said in the blog post.  I am puzzled by this move.

I don’t think that FSF goal it to prevent iPhone users to run GNU software on their device, as David ‘Lefty’ Schlesinger paints it and seems to discuss,but nevertheless this is the immediate effect.  Mobile app stores and locked down devices are hostile to free/libre software and GPLv3 can have a difficult life in the mobile environment because of its ‘full installation instructions’ provision. Also, there are still too few free/libre mobile applications.

Having this in mind, a plausible explanation of FSF’s move was to educate free software developers that mobile app stores are not designed to respect users freedom. Fine, but the following question is: how to we proceed from here? What’s the next step of this education and what’s FSF’s plan to bring freedom to the users of mobile phones? I suggest for FSF to sponsor a mobile app repository for free/libre apps: it would have to run on non-free operating systems, but that’s what GNU had to do when there was no Linux. Also, it would be good and probably easy to extend the Free Software Directory to take mobile world into account. What else should FSF do to promote freedom in the mobile world?

Locked devices, GPLv3 and the path to mobile freedom

iPhone lockedIn a recent discussion with friends I realized that tivoization is a sub-optimal world to describe the problem that the Free Software community has with freedom being controlled by those that control the hardware.  The word clearly targets one specific company, so the problem gets somewhat reduced in scope. The real issue is not limited to companies exploiting the hard work of free developers, removing with hardware constraints the very freedom that developers wanted to grant to all users. There is more than that, and this is especially visible in the mobile environment.

Almost all existing handsets require applications to be signed before they can be executed. Depending on the mobile platform, these signing keys can be cheap or expensive and given to all or only to selected people. All of them are personal and they’re not supposed to be shared with third party. GPLv3 and its sister licenses, Affero GPLv3 and Lesser GPLv3, require developers to release the full installation instructions which include the private keys to sign the application. This is not requested by the license only to the manufacturers of User Products, like the word tivoization seems to suggest, but to everybody distributing GPLv3 software on locked down devices, like iPhone or BlackBerry.

Free Software Developers that want to re-use or release new code under the GPLv3 licenses face a dilemma: decide not to support locked devices or circumvent the GPLv3 requirement to distribute the signing keys with an additional permission. Option one means that almost all of cell phone users out there (over 2 billion people in 2005) won’t get to know Mobile Free Software. Option 2 means surrendering to the power of AT&T, Verizon, Apple, Microsoft and the like. Funambol requires copyright assignment for all contributions, so it can distribute the source code of its mobile clients under the vanilla AGPLv3 license, and the binaries are under a different license. It’s a hack that works as long as developers trust the company not to breach the social contract and it has limitations.

On the other hand, the GPLv3 anti-lock provision is there to protect Free Software Users from the risk to be bullied by the network operators, since you can lose the warranty or be kicked out of the network if you run software that is not blessed by the gate keepers of the mobile cloud.

Is there a third option? Does relaxing the GPLv3 provision really mean surrendering to the powers of the telecom operators, who twist the arms of the proprietary manufacturers? How can the Free Software community change the broken rules dictated by the Evil Lords of the Wireless Cloud?

Extend the border of free cyberspace to mobile

After one year spent using my (pretty old) cell phone for more than just sms and audio calls, I understand better some of the new challenges that the free software movement have to face.’  I already wrote about the implications of GPLv3 on mobile handsets, but that post only scratches the surface of the issues.

The free software movement is a social movement whose ultimate goal is to liberate every person in cyberspace, that is every computer user. But the meaning of computer and of cyberspace has expanded logarithmically in the past few years and I fear that the rethoric of the movement has not evolved at the same pace. I am for sure one of those that only recently realized how much the handheld devices extend the cyberspace beyond the usual desktop frames.

The computational capability of these devices is impressive, but those pale compared to the social impact on human behaviour. Have a look at the scenarios described in this video, for example, and think of how much your life changed since you had a cell phone.’  Did you ever try to organize a meeting with many people in a remote place without cell phones or network coverage?’  You’d need lots of preparation beforehand, gather addresses, start ahead of time, get everything printed; still somebody would get lost. Or think how much the micropayments via sms, so popular in Africa, are changing life and social habits.

All the interest and hacks on the new powerful and only slightly-less-closed platforms such as iPhone and G1 demonstrate that there are enough free software developer ready to play with truly open platforms. There is a force waiting to be unleashed to liberate the mobile aspect of cyberspace.’  I’m not sure if and what is holding this force. Maybe it’s the fact that cell phones are not really free software developers friendly (only the Neo Free Runner is, at the moment). Or maybe it’s the lack of a clear call from a moral authority, like the one that Stallman launched in 1984 for the GNU system. Maybe all this and something else.

All I know is that our movement needs to evolve its rethoric, extend its reach beyond the desktop computer and beyond the ‘cloud’, and include the mobile computation into the big picture of freedom for computer users. What can we do to obtain more freedom on mobile platforms?

Affero GPL is freedom to the web

Savio questions the usefulness of AGPL and his argument seems very slippery to me. He questions whether the Affero GPL is an obstacle to the development of more free/libre open source software.’  He uses Facebook as an example company that is contributing back modifications to memcached, software that FB uses after having it heavily modified even if it is licensed under the very permissive BSD license. Do we need copyleft licenses, when self interest of the companies makes them contribute back just the same?

I believe the question is tricky because it confuses the scope of copyleft with that of companies. Many people make the same mistake: copyleft is a tool designed to spread freedom in software, at any cost with all tools at our disposal. The FSF, which wrote the GNU and Affero licenses, has the goal to make all software free as in freedom. Companies are ‘free’ to join the revolution, or to look somewhere else for their needs.’  The GNU project existed and survived long before it was mainstream (it started 25 years ago); the whole free software movement has now become too big to kill. The movement counts on good will and self interests of people and also of companies for the contributions, that’s for sure. But the same movement is well aware that sometimes good will doesn’t last for long. Stallman saw it happen during the 80s. We are seeing it happening again, at each downturn of the economy. Who was around when SourceForge turned its software proprietary? I was around and I remember the delusion.

There is no question in my mind that freedom must be fought for and defended with all means available.’  We have copyright laws and we use it.’  The GNU system and copyleft is mainstream on personal computers and servers. Now, with the Affero GPL it’s time to take freedom to the web.

PS don’t forget to donate to FSF. Do it now!

Facebook shows self-interest may trump licensing |Open Sources | Rodrigues & Urlocker | InfoWorld.

Six months of GPLv3: a chat with Ernest Park of Palamida

Six months ago Free Software Foundation released the third version of the most widely adopted free software license, the GNU GPL version 3. To track adoption of the new license, Palamida started a project with the aim

to build a unified view of the status of GPLv3 and LGPLv3 adoption and usage across the community.

I have exchanged a few questions with Ernest Park, VP, R&D GRoup of Palamida.

Stefano Maffulli: Why did you start tracking GPLv3 adoption?

gpl3.palamida.com: We started tracking GPL v3 adoption because is was one of the top questions we kept getting from customers and prospects. We found that customers were coming to us with “We’ve heard this….One of our attorneys heard at a conference that….” And the feedback literally ranged from 0% to 100% adoption. Since we track 884,000 (and growing daily) open source project versions on an ongoing basis, we thought who best to know what projects are doing en masse and when? There seemed to be enough FUD on both the pro and con side of the license, that we thought it would be valuable to publish data that tried to be as neutral as possible – no judgment about the license, no axe to grind on the merits of copyleft, etc. We wanted to let the market speak for itself – by showing GPL 3 adoption rate.

SM: Did FSF ask you to do it?

gpl3.palamida.com: FSF did not ask us to do this. At this point, I would be flattered if they recognized the efforts of our team to provide objective an unbiased, reliable information regarding adoption of specific open source licenses over time. This research project was internally originated and sponsored.

SM: What results do you expect from gplv3.palamida.com?

gpl3.palamida.com: We didn’t know what to expect from the site. Palamida is a proprietary software company who uses open source products in our software (see the IP Ingredients list for our IP Amplifier product on our web site). This was the first time we shared information from our database to companies outside of our customer base. We know that our customers find the information incredibly valuable, and we’ve been extremely happy to hear from others that they find the information useful. Palamida is constantly trying to figure out ways to give back to the broader community is this seemed like a no-brainer for us.We enjoy being participants in the open source community through projects like this, so even this is an educational experience for us – to be on the side of the originator of licensed works.

SM: Will youtrack Affero GPLv3 adoption too, besides GPL and LGPL?

gpl3.palamida.com: The honest answer is that we don’t know. We would only do it if we got a lot of interest from both our customers and the broader community. If it seems like valuable information to a broad spectrum of people, we wouldn’t hesitate. But to be honest, I cannot recall one request for it. But will look into it to see what kind of interest there is. We do track a significant amount of information beyond what is listed on the site. Our goal is to keep our site topical and relevant to what people are interested in regarding OSS and its licensing. Let me know what you think.

Ernest maintains a blog where comments, advice and opinions are always welcome.

UPDATE: read Ernest’s post GPLv3 – The Year in Review