Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Problem of Freedom.

I’d like to discuss what freedom really means. Not in terms of political freedom, or freedom from slavery, or anything so obviously good. My issue here is with free software, and one piece of it in particular: Android.

Android is quite a solid OS, from what I can tell. I haven’t used it, so I can’t comment on the user experience, but (as I’ll get to in a little bit) even if I had there’s a lot I couldn’t tell you about that anyway.

Partly in response to the closed, controlled situation of iOS, and partly due to Google’s own philosophy, Android’s design and marketing both emphasise its status as free software. iOS is available on a sum total of three devices, all sold by Apple. It can access the open web, but the only way to get native apps for it is also from Apple, which vets and classifies every app submitted. Android is both free as in speech, for anyone to modify as they wish, and free as in beer, able to be installed on any phone (or any device, for that matter) without paying a cent to Google. Google intends to make money by selling ads on Android devices.

This sort of model works fairly well for Linux on the desktop, although it does have some of the same problems Android does. Nevertheless, almost every copy of Linux in use is installed and customised by the end user, which fits its niche as an OS for hobbyists, software libertarians, and other assorted nerds. This isn’t the case with Android, which comes preinstalled and pre-customised on the phone you buy, and is intended for a much broader consumer market.

One problems that desktop Linux and Android share is platform fragmentation, although it’s much less of an issue for Linux. There are four different “core” versions of Android floating around: 1.5, 1.6, 2.1 and 2.2. This wouldn’t be a problem in itself, if users could actually upgrade to the latest version of the OS. There’s no hardware-based reason they shouldn’t be able to in most cases — even the oldest Android phones are fast enough to run at least the core features of Android 2.2. The actual reason you can’t upgrade most Android phones is twofold.

The first reason is vendor-side customisation: both the manufacturer of your phone and the network you’re signed to have modified the OS so as to have a unique UI, access to network-specific features, and sometimes to preinstall apps. These modifications have to be worked into the updated OS before it can run on your phone. (This vendor-side customisation is also problematic because it means that, compared to other mobile OSes, there’s a lot less consistency and familiarity between devices.)

The second is that Google doesn’t take responsibility for distributing software updates, so it falls to the manufacturers and carriers, who are much more interested in selling you a new phone with 2.2 on it than adding value to your old one. (Microsoft’s mobile OS has this same problem — and Windows Mobile 7 isn’t even backward-compatible with apps for earlier versions.) Result: no updates for you.

The biggest issue, though, is with the intransitivity of Android’s much-touted freedom. The idea is you can install whatever you like on the OS: it’s completely unregulated. But think about the effects of this. There are very few quality commercial apps for the platform, because as soon as one appears it is effortlessly pirated. You’re not free to sell an Android app, because others are free to steal it. On top of this, you have no guarantee of any kind whatsoever as regards the apps you download. The result is that millions of people have had their personal information stolen, or their phones infected with viruses.

Vendors — manufacturers and especially carriers — are free to modify the OS as they see fit. The result is that they in their turn lock it down, giving you a phone that’s less free than an iPhone or a BlackBerry. They remove the Android Market and instead install their own app store, which invariably has fewer, lousier apps at monopoly prices. They preload their own apps — adware, music stores, etc. — and make them impossible to remove or replace with an alternative. In America, the Galaxy S ships with Google search disabled in favour of Microsoft’s Bing search. You can’t even choose to use Google search on this phone, despite the fact that it’s running Google’s OS!

Freedom is all very well, but is the sort of freedom Android offers of any real use to the consumer? And even if it is, and even if it isn’t snuffed out by meddling carriers and handset makers, is it worth dealing with the rampant piracy and malware inherent in the system?


  1. It's rather odd that you start an article on "what freedom really means" by dismissing actual freedom in the very next sentence and never revisiting it. There are pragmatic aspects to software freedom, as there are to political freedom and freedom from slavery, but in all three cases the fundamental aspects are ones of principle.

    Surely these principles should be mentioned and discussed in a post that styles itself as being about what freedom really means? Pragmatic aspects can be important in practice, and do deserve a mention, but to make them the whole of the discussion rather impoverishes us.

    Secondly, I wonder why you concentrate on desktop Linux, rather than Linux in general, with its success in servers and in high-end computing. Even on the desktop, it's been a while since it could be reasonably described as a niche OS "for hobbyists, software libertarians, and other assorted nerds".

    Thirdly, it's a bit sad to use vocabulary such as "pirate", "steal" etc when discussing the difference between FOSS and proprietary software. Ultimately, it amounts to assuming the antecedent (petitio principii); it's the vocabulary of an extremist faction on one side of the discussion, embodying assumptions that pre-suppose a particular conclusion to the discussion.

    Finally, that vendors and resellers are locking Android down is rather bad, but it's a departure from the principles of Freedom, rather than its realisation. Generally, I get the impression that Android phones are only really Free/Open in comparison to iPhones, a rather low bar to clear, rather than being Free/Open in any absolute sense. That's not really a problem of Freedom, though, that's a problem with Android's imperfect implementation. One might discuss whether this is failure or design on Google's part, or on the part of various others (Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman, Eben Moglen), but it's only marginally relevant to a discussion of "what freedom really means"...

  2. My intention here was always to discuss the pragmatic aspects of a particular form of "freedom", and I don't think the discussion is impoverished for that. The opening lines are there merely to point out that this will not be a discussion of lofty principles.

    I don't mean to focus overly on desktop Linux; it was only an example.

    Piracy is the accepted term for the act of using commercial software without payment. Android is FOSS; the commercial apps written for it are not; yet they are easy to pirate, because of the free and open nature of Android itself. What term would you have me use instead?

    That vendors and resellers are locking Android down is due to the principles of "freedom" that Google followed in creating it. One could ensure that the software that the consumer actually uses is properly free, but only by denying those same freedoms to the vendors and manufacturers. I think this is very definitely a failure on Google's part.

  3. Terms like "pirate" and "steal" are used by some copyright holders to exaggerate and emotionally colour the act of infringement and to conflate copyright with property.

    A neutral term would be "copy"; a positive term would be "share".

    As for impoverishing the discussion — you spend the bulk of the post talking rather narrowly about a situation where Google (probably by design) licensed Android in a way that fairly predictably led to various unfavourable outcomes for end-users. That's a single product of a single company that either mishandled the situation or simply doesn't consider end-user freedom important (or, more charitably, as important as some other aspect of the situation).

    Meanwhile, the broad sweep of software freedom (and, more generally, that of all digital creation) is pretty much omitted from your post.

  4. You say that like it's a bad thing.

    I say "pirate" rather than "steal" precisely because it's a case of copyright infringement rather than property violation. It's the accepted terminology; it's also illegal, and regardless of your moral stance on it, it results in people going uncompensated for their work.

    And software freedom in the general case is not a bad thing. I made it quite clear in the first paragraph that I was only discussing Android here.

  5. Well, loaded terms are a bad thing if one is trying to understand correctly. They're especially bad if one is discussing the very assumptions embodied in them.

    Pragmatically, loaded terms are bad if one disagrees with the embodied assumptions; they're good (or at least OK) if one agrees with them.

    As for moral stance, selling software on the condition that the purchasers shall not help their neighbours is pretty evil. It's usually not stated so starkly — but ultimately that's the effect.

    Meanwhile, there is no entitlement to be compensated for whatever activity one picks as "work". If people go uncompensated, that means the activity in question is no longer wanted. As the song goes, video killed the radio star. It can be a bit harsh during the transition, but that's no call to stop the clock of progress...

    The question of legality is not really very interesting this close to a discussion of whether the law ought to be different. For what it's worth, both FOSS and proprietary software rely on the same copyright laws for enforcement of their respective models. You seem to have a rather poor opinion of Android users, though, if you believe that the physical possibility of breaking the law will automatically induce them to break it.

  6. I have no such negative opinion of Android users as a group. It's not that they're capable of breaking the law; it's that a significant number do. iPhone users are capable of the same thing, but they have to "jailbreak" their phones to do so, which carries enough drawbacks and extra hassles that most don't bother. I have a much bigger problem with people who create Android apps to collect user data without permission; one app managed to steal the personal information of about 4 million users, a huge security hole.

    I have no moral problem with "sharing" of software (whether that software consists of applications, media files or anything else) if the alternative, from the end user's point of view, is not to use that software at all. If it is so unaffordable, from the end user's point of view, that he would rather do without than buy the software, and if he isn't using it to make money himself, then it is acceptable to "share". Even then, it's piracy and I have no problems referring to it as such.

    The reason I don't have a problem with it in this case is that it means that nobody goes uncompensated where they otherwise wouldn't were it not for piracy.

    The rampant nature of piracy on Android, which is to such an extent that selling software for the platform is no longer a realistic commercial proposition, compared to its relative absence on more controlled platforms, where startup developers can make millions selling apps at a dollar apiece, suggests that this is not what is happening.

    Of course, there is no absolute right to compensation for whatever one deems to be "work"; but to say that a lack of compensation means the activity is no longer wanted, when the activity is clearly in demand because of the number of people using its fruits, is laughable. If the fruits of one's labour are in demand, one has the right to negotiate the terms of supply.

  7. OK, statistical report that Android users do, in fact, copy software in breach of copyright is a different matter; and malicious apps are malicious no matter who writes them.

    As for sharing software, one real problem is that the proprietary software model forces people to choose between obeying the law and obeying the moral commandment to help their neighbours. It's not good to put oneself into that situation, and it's not good to put others there, either.

    If the fruits of one's labour are in demand, one indeed has the right to negotiate the terms of supply, "as long as one does not use means that are destructive. But the means customary in the field of software [in the 1980s] are based on destruction." (to quote an old FAQ on the topic [1])

    If no-longer-wanted activity is not compensated, it may be laughable, but it's also true; that's the free market for you. Oftentimes, though, it's not the overall activity but the details — video may have killed the radio star, but it substituted the video star. The music kept playing.

    In the case of software, the question was asked at least as early as the 1970s, and wasn't answered in a practical way until the 1990s — two decades later. It's not a simple question, and the answer was not at all obvious. However, during the 1990s people started stumbling upon the answer and by the end of the decade it was characterised and described in some detail [2].

    So, as of 2010, it's quite plausible to say that proprietary software development is no longer wanted; as a society, we can obtain software in another way. We can argue about which way is better, but it's hardly laughable to claim that one or the other is superfluous.

    [1] GNU Manifesto, Richard M. Stallman, 1985
    [2] The Cathedral and the Bazaar, Eric S. Raymond, 1999 (first presented 1997)

  8. I didn't say that it's laughable that a no-longer-wanted activity is not compensated. I said that it's laughable to say that, because an activity is not compensated, it is no longer wanted, given that in this case that activity is demonstrably still in demand.

    I don't understand how one can possibly argue that the means of negotiating the terms of supply are destructive, at least in the general case, when it comes to software licensing. I'm going to need you to explain this. I do think licensing laws (and copyright-management mechanisms) are too restrictive if they, for example, don't let users make backups, but that's not the issue at hand here.

  9. Well, it's one particular family of terms that's destructive, which are characteristic of proprietary software. These terms forbid and/or prevent users from sharing and improving the software.

    I've already mentioned one of them: if I have a copy of a program, and my neighbour would find the program useful, and copying the program is easy, then I have a moral obligation to copy the program for my neighbour. If the terms on the program forbid such copying, then I have a dilemma, which is either going to harm my respect for the law (if I copy anyway) or my neighbourly spirit (if I don't).

    A second problem is that the proprietary software arrangement gives some amount of power over the user to the developer. The interests of developer and user are not really aligned. For the most part, the result takes the form of vendor lock-in and forced upgrades, but occasionally there are features that are outright malicious (eg spying) or anti-social (eg disabling text-to-speech output, which can be a problem for blind users).

    There's a bunch of other problems: customisation of proprietary software is limited to non-existent, it leads to duplication of programming work, and to the extent copyright is a government-granted monopoly, it will show the classical suboptimal allocation of resources of a market under monopoly conditions. However, the first two problems are probably the major ones at this stage.

    That's why I'm saying that the proprietary software model is destructive; there's nothing wrong with charging money for software per se, it's the other terms (and practices) that are a problem. Solving that problem does make it implausible to charge money for copies of software, but that's a side-effect, not the aim. Fortunately, charging money for copies of software turns out not to be necessary.

  10. If my neighbour would find counterfeit money useful, and making it is easy for me, do I have a moral obligation to make it for him? That sort of idea is patently absurd. Yes, it is obligatory in some cases and supererogatory in many others to help our neighbours; but there are reasonable limits to this, and those limits include where to render such assistance treads on the rights of others.

    I believe there ought to be limits to what vendors can do as regards proprietary software; spyware is an obvious example and there are others. But this doesn't mean it should be banned; merely regulated. This, of course, is the real problem with Android: it isn't regulated. Even though the software is FOSS, the vendors lock users in. Clearly, the problem is not proprietary software, but a lack of vendor regulation. I don't know what you mean by "forced upgrades".

    I really don't understand people complaining about the lack of customisation available with certain software. There are always alternatives that are more customisable — get them instead. I prefer my software to be functional enough that I don't have to customise it very much. And to what extent does copyright lead to monopoly? Apple tried to get a monopoly over the GUI and it was thrown out. There are free alternatives to most major proprietary offerings — but some more complex ones need commercial backing to have any quality. Banning proprietary software would mean that these applications will no longer be developed.

    If certain terms and practices are a problem, we should ban them. There's no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  11. Hmm, so you choose the law above helping your neighbour? Interesting :-) The principled way is to avoid the dilemma in the first place, by refusing software which has such conditions. That took a lot of conviction in the 1980s when GNU first started, and people like Stallman deserve a lot of respect for it; these days it's a lot easier, amounting to the occasional minor annoyance.

    The difference from physical goods and money is that software is by its nature easy to copy perfectly. Most physical goods can't be copied at all without significant work (and it's in fact legal to do so), while copying money devalues it and runs afoul of money-specific aspects which are an entirely different discussion.

    I'd be curious to know what mechanism you would propose for the regulation of software; should the government do it? What rules would you propose? How would you enforce them in practice? It seems a pity to involve the government when the FOSS model seems to do fine...

    By "forced upgrades" (also "upgrade treadmill", I couldn't think of the phrase last night) I mean situations where the developer forces users who are quite happy with the current version to upgrade to (and pay for) a new version. This can be done through discontinuing support for the old version, or more insidiously through gratuitous file format changes (so that as soon as a few users upgrade, all their correspondents are strongly inconvenienced into upgrading too, because they're receiving .doc/.docx files that they can't read). The developer can do this in proportion to the degree of vendor lock-in.

    The lack of customisation is more fundamental than having more or fewer options; sometimes, there's reason to add a new feature (or remove one) — not very often, but when it's needed, it can be vital. It also serves as a check on the developers, to ensure they don't stray too far from the users' interest. Sure, there are alternatives to programs, but that leads to one of the other problems I mentioned — duplication of programming work — and with vendor lock-in the cost of switching to the alternatives can be high. Even without that, re-writing an entire program in order to add a trivial feature is incredibly wasteful.

    Copyright is a monopoly by definition. To the extent that programs are not substitutable for one another, and usually they aren't quite, monopoly effects will appear. These are a net loss to society. In any case, that was one of my minor points.

    Given the success of Linux on servers and in high-performance computing, it seems unlikely that complexity alone is a bar to FOSS development.

    (to be continued)

  12. (continued; looks like you have a comment length limit)

    Banning only the terms and practices that are a problem is a good idea; however, it'll probably end up quite similar to the existing definitions of FOSS: all users must have the right to use, study, change and share the software (and everyone must be restricted from denying these rights to others).

    For instance, with spying — the right to study means that someone is likely to find the malicious feature, and the right to change means that it can be removed. The right to share means that the modified version can be distributed, so that it only takes one person to find and remove the spying and everyone benefits.

    I don't think the positive effects can be achieved with a smaller set of rights, certainly not reliably. What would you propose?

  13. Don't put words in my mouth. I put respecting people's rights above helping my neighbours.

    Software is as easy to copy, in theory, as money is. The only reason money is so difficult to copy is because people put a lot of effort into making it so; the same goes for software that is copy-protected.

    It's not legal to copy physical products if their design is itself patented or copyrighted. Copying software devalues it just as copying money does.

    Most major software companies that I know of don't discontinue support for older software until most people aren't using it anyway. Microsoft extended support for Windows XP because people were continuing to use it for a lot longer than they expected. In the specific case that you give, there's a free converter utility Microsoft made available in order for people to be able to open docx files in earlier versions of Word. I only have Word 2004, which I haven't used in months because it's as slow as a wet week on my system — but I can open docx files in it, or in TextEdit, or in Pages.

    Duplication of effort, in these cases, is not necessarily a bad thing; it avoids precisely the sort of monopoly you're talking about, by creating multiple alternatives.

    Linux on servers and in high-performance computing makes sense, as these situations demand high levels of customisability — they also demand professional operators. There are reasons, though, that FOSS alternatives to things like Pro Tools or Final Cut haven't really gained traction. Note also that despite being proprietary, these applications are far from monopolies.

    I don't see that banning unethical terms and practices would result in a FOSS system, as I don't see such a ban allowing people to violate creators' rights to negotiate the terms of supply. If you have a problem with the terms of supply, don't buy the software — as you've pointed out, FOSS solutions can be adequate in many situations. In the case of spyware, the right to study means that someone can find the malicious feature, but then it can be much more easily dealt with by forcing the company to recall the offending software and issue a compulsory patch. I think you grossly overestimate the attention people pay to what their software is doing under the hood — this is why we have the problem of spyware in the first place.

  14. "Don't put words in my mouth. I put respecting people's rights above helping my neighbours."

    My apologies; I guess I see copyright rights as government-granted (through laws) rather than natural. In any case, allow me to rephrase: you're willing to accept a license term not to help your neighbour, and you're willing to accept it not for something vital like food or health, but for software. Hopefully that's a more accurate reflection of what you said?

    The upgrade treadmill was rather harsher earlier; as I said, it works in proportion to vendor lock-in, and the existence of OpenOffice reduced that a lot for MS Office in recent years. Similarly, support for Windows XP was extended at least partly due to competitive pressure from Linux on netbooks.

    Duplication of effort does indeed help avoid some of the bad effects, but it's still a waste, especially when more efficient techniques exist, and it doesn't avoid them all.

    "If you have a problem with the terms of supply, don't buy the software" — precisely. I don't buy proprietary software. I think you shouldn't either, for the same reasons that I don't.

    (Also, if you're going to post about software freedom, you should probably have read some of the essays and other writings on the topic; you don't have to agree with them, but you should probably at least know them. The Stallman and Raymond essays cited up-thread are probably a good start, plus Stallman's "Why Software Should Be Free".)

    The degree of attention people pay to what's under the hood varies — in proprietary software, with the hood metaphorically welded shut, it's a lot harder to do it and if one does find something, it's relatively unlikely that one will be able to do anything productive (and/or satisfying) with it. That will always be a downer. With FOSS, the hood opens easily, and if one does find a problem, one can usually help solve it. To quote a leaked Microsoft document, "the *feeling* [is] exhilarating and addictive". That tends to encourage attention.

  15. Copyright is government granted, but it descends from what we refer to as "natural" rights. They, like the laws that enforce them, are useful fictions, but they have been reached through reason and experience.

    This is exactly the sort of problem I have with FOSS zealots. I point out that they're free to restrict themselves to using FOSS, but that's apparently not enough. When you tell me that I'm wrong for not doing the same, I get resentful. Who, exactly, am I hurting by using proprietary software?

  16. PS: Re copying software devaluing it — that's simply counter-factual. A lot of software is anti-rival, due to network effects, so that copying it makes each existing copy more valuable. At the very least, software is non-rival.

  17. "FOSS zealots", is it? In this case, though, you can hardly complain that on a blog post where you lead by saying that you'd "like discuss what freedom really means" someone debates you on that very topic.

    I've already mentioned a couple of ways in which proprietary software terms are destructive, and pointed you to a couple of documents which expound on this at more length. Accepting such destructive terms hurts both you and your community. It hurts me only insofar as I'm a member of the community, and in that I don't like to see friends harmed. Basically, "hurting someone" is pretty much the definition of "destructive" here, and the explanations make it pretty clear who is being hurt by each aspect.

    As for copyright laws being reached through reason and experience, with respect to software that's largely not true at this stage. Copyright rather pre-dates the invention of the comptuer and the Internet, so that the current situation is more historical accident than deliberate, reasoned design. The discussion of what the law should be is ongoing; appealing to the authority of the law in a discussion of what the law should be is misplaced. Appealing to "natural" rights is more apropos, but the degree to which rights that have only existed for a few centuries are "natural" is certainly debatable. Arguments such as Stallman's about the balance of benefit and harm in copyright as it has been applied in the proprietary software model are a contribution to the "reason and experience" through which law is reached.

  18. I still fail to see how it's necessarily destructive/harmful in any sense.

    I thought I was explaining how moral rights, as well as legal ones, are not "natural" as such, but are useful fictions. Certainly the law has a lot of catching up to do, but the moral principles involved are the same as they've always been.

  19. Well, I've gone through my reasoning up-thread (in the comment that starts "Well, it's one particular family of terms that's destructive") and pointed to Richard Stallman's "Why Software Should Be Free"; I guess if I've failed to convince, I've failed to convince.

    Moral principles are indeed the same as they've always been, but their consequences can change if the world changes.

    Firstly, though, what are the moral principles underlying copyright? In the English tradition, copyright was a "creature of statute", "for the Encouragement of Learning". In the US, the purpose is "to promote the progress of science and useful arts". Both of these are strictly utilitarian, treating the author as a means to an end. Other traditions recognise "moral rights", for instance the right to attribution and integrity of the work, but those are little-affected by copying (or, indeed, by the rest of the use / study / change / share model) and wouldn't generally involve per-copy payments anyway. That leaves just the utilitarian aspect — what's the best way to encourage learning and promote progress?

    Obviously, if there are other moral principles underlying copyright, the analysis may change.

    Then there's the changes in the world; copyright developed with the printing press — a technology which had significant economies of scale and required some investment (a small factory). Prior to the printing press, copies were all expensive, with not much economy of scale, and there was no copyright. Today, copies are cheap regardless of scale and require minimal investment, with copying machines ubiquitous (children's toys, everyday office equipment, Internet). What should copyright be in today's world?

    For software, there are two realistic contenders: the proprietary software model and FOSS. Of the two, the latter seems more conducive to encouraging learning and promoting progress (see also Eric Raymond's "The Cathedral and the Bazaar"). It's also the one that's compatible with cheap, ubiquitous copying. It has the convenient advantage that it seems to be out-competing proprietary software in a head-to-head fight in the combination of today's accidental copyright regime and a couple of clever mechanisms (primarily the GNU GPL), though proposals like software patents or DRM could spoil that if they go through.

  20. Well, I've gone through my reasoning up-thread (in the comment that starts "Well, it's one particular family of terms that's destructive") and pointed to Richard Stallman's "Why Software Should Be Free"; I guess if I've failed to convince, I've failed to convince.

    Moral principles are indeed the same as they've always been, but their consequences can change if the world changes.

    Firstly, though, what are the moral principles underlying copyright? In the English tradition, copyright was a "creature of statute", "for the Encouragement of Learning". In the US, the purpose is "to promote the progress of science and useful arts". Both of these are strictly utilitarian, treating the author as a means to an end. Other traditions recognise "moral rights", for instance the right to attribution and integrity of the work, but those are little-affected by copying (or, indeed, by the rest of the use / study / change / share model) and wouldn't generally involve per-copy payments anyway. That leaves just the utilitarian aspect — what's the best way to encourage learning and promote progress?

    Obviously, if there are other moral principles underlying copyright, the analysis may change.

    Then there's the changes in the world; copyright developed with the printing press — a technology which had significant economies of scale and required some investment (a small factory). Prior to the printing press, copies were all expensive, with not much economy of scale, and there was no copyright. Today, copies are cheap regardless of scale and require minimal investment, with copying machines ubiquitous (children's toys, everyday office equipment, Internet). What should copyright be in today's world?

    For software, there are two realistic contenders: the proprietary software model and FOSS. Of the two, the latter seems more conducive to encouraging learning and promoting progress (see also Eric Raymond's "The Cathedral and the Bazaar"). It's also the one that's compatible with cheap, ubiquitous copying. It has the convenient advantage that it seems to be out-competing proprietary software for the moment.

  21. Ah, sorry about the double comment; I got an error message, so I thought the comment hadn't gone through (like last time), so I shortened it and re-posted. I should have checked more carefully...

  22. As far as I can tell, your reasoning amounts to "It's harmful because it's destructive, and it's destructive because it's harmful." I'm sure this isn't your actual thinking, but that's how it's coming across.

    As far as the moral principles underlying copyright, the US definition is probably the more useful one, at least as regards software copyright. I think, though, that the right to negotiate the terms of supply should be sufficient. Why don't you?

    Why can't proprietary software and FOSS coexist? That's the way it's working out now, and while the situation isn't exactly stable, it's not detrimentally unstable either. Most people use a mix of proprietary software and FOSS — Mac OS X, for example, is a mix of the Darwin core and proprietary components. I use Adium for instant messaging, VLC for media playback, and Google Apps for communicating with my supervisor; but I use iWork for productivity, because it has the typographic and design features I need, and I use Sibelius for making music (as well as GarageBand) because I'm used to it from school and I haven't found a FOSS alternative that works for me. Sure, you could argue that getting someone used to using a program counts as "vendor lock-in", but I hardly think that holds any water. It's certainly effective advertising. Trying out iWork in the Apple Store convinced me to buy it, but that was because I was able to confirm that it had the features I needed that MS Office and OpenOffice lacked. But being sold one a feature is hardly "vendor lock-in".

  23. Well, in this context, "harmful" and "destructive" have pretty similar meaning; in the comment up-thread that starts "Well, it's one particular family of terms that's destructive", I quickly outlined a couple of ways in which these terms are harmful or destructive. To take the first one from that comment, a situation which is either going to harm my respect for the law or my neighbourly spirit is not good for me psychologically and it's pretty corrosive socially, too, no matter which way I go. It's similar with the other points in that comment — each of them outlines a detriment to the user or to society as a whole.

    If you want a longer version of most of these, do check out Richard Stallman's essay "Why Software Should Be Free"; it's almost two decades old, so some of the emphasis and examples differ, but most of the points are still just as valid now as they were then (obviously, the "Why People Will Develop Software" section is now pretty outdated).

    The problem with leaving the discussion at "the right to negotiate terms of supply" is that different potential copyright regimes would make different terms possible and/or profitable, and these different terms would lead to different outcomes. The copyright regime is not set in stone; we can strive to change it so that societally positive outcomes become more likely and/or so that societally negative outcomes become less likely. Just as importantly, others are striving to change the copyright regime for other goals, and some of those proposed changes are pretty odious (ACTA, three strikes, DRM).

    The question of proprietary software vs FOSS... well, you started the discussion about software freedom! Perhaps most of it is purely abstract, but where it impacts on real situations, we can draw practical consequences from it.

    Vendor lock-in is basically defined by switching costs: how much effort and/or money would it cost you to get your data (and perhaps other arrangements) away from the program and into a (perhaps hypothetical) alternative? Don't forget to include metadata, tags and folders and so on. Sometimes it's easy, through standard formats, though often the metadata suffers (and may need to be re-entered — a rather large cost). Other times it may be very difficult or time-consuming, for instance if you have to manually open every single document and re-save it in a different format.

  24. PS - as an example of how different copyright regimes enable different outcomes, consider that cover versions of songs are typically made under compulsory license. The copyright holder cannot refuse. Whether that's good or bad, I'm not sure, but covers are so common specifically because of that provision of the law.

  25. Again, I don't see your dilemma, because regardless of the laws involved the creator's rights still apply. You don't have an unlimited obligation, or even supererogation, to help your neighbour, and one of the limits involved is when such help infringes on others' rights.

    You started the discussion about the principles of software freedom. A discussion I'm happy to have, but not one I meant to start by discussing the practical pitfalls of Android, which I see as descending from its complete "freedom". Most FOSS, as I understand it, isn't as free as Android, because it includes a licence restriction that demands that derivative works also be free. This makes a lot of sense to me.

  26. Wait, what? If the rights are created by the law, and defined and delimited by the law, does it even make any sense to talk about them "regardless of the law"?

    If copyright law were different, creator's rights would be different, or non-existent.

    You've written up-thread that under certain conditions, you consider sharing to be both acceptable ("no moral problem") and illegal ("piracy"). That's got to be bad for your respect for the law and for the creator's rights — you are in favour of letting creators negotiate terms of supply, yet here you are unilaterally modifying them when they aren't looking. That's precisely the dilemma I'm talking about.

    BTW, on a tangent, one interesting variant would be a hypothetical situation where an affordable substitute exists, as it does today for the vast majority of software. What's the morality of copying Adobe Photoshop, for instance, while The GIMP is available?

  27. Legal rights are created by the law. If I'm talking about rights that exist regardless of the law, clearly I'm talking about some other class of rights. Moral rights are no less fictitious than legal rights, but they are based on sound reason. Once again, please do not put words into my mouth. The right to negotiate the terms of supply of the fruits of one's labour is a moral right; copyright is the law's attempt to codify this moral right. The latter descends from the former, and is practically inevitably an imperfect implementation of it.

    I consider piracy, in cases where the alternative would be to do without, to be both illegal (it patently is) and morally acceptable. I can do this because I don't consider the law to be perfectly just. I am in favour of letting creators negotiate terms of supply, but again, this right has to be balanced with others, such as fair trade; and this right exists so that creators can receive just compensation for their labours if those labours are in demand. Since piracy, in cases where the alternative would be to do without, does not deprive them of such compensation, it does not violate this right.

    I'd be in favour of someone using the GIMP rather than pirating Photoshop. I haven't really used either much so I don't know how comparable they are, but I understand that the GIMP is intended to directly compete with Photoshop so I assume they're very similar. I think I've outlined adequately the cases where harm would be done by pirating Photoshop and the cases where it wouldn't.

  28. Well, at least in the US and English traditions, the idea that copyright laws codify an underlying, pre-existing, natural right of authors is rather ahistorical. It's been pushed by the publishers (not usually the authors) for almost as long as copyright's existed, but that doesn't necessarily make it true and it certainly doesn't make it necessarily true. If we're talking primarily about the US tradition, moral rights are pretty much non-existent — hence my confusion about what you even meant.

    To the extent that moral rights based on reason do exist, it's a good idea to revisit that reason when the circumstances change significantly; when the facts change, anything depending on those facts will need to be re-reasoned and (if necessary) revised. At least some of the reason is based on facts about the printing press; the facts about computers and the Internet are quite different, and will probably lead to different conclusions and hence a different contour of moral rights.

    If we have a situation where you consider the law unjust, at least to some extent, as do many other people, the proper solution is to change it. This of course leads to the question of what the changed law should be.

    Under the circumstances, an argument that creators should have the right to negotiate terms of supply is essentially an argument in favour of the status quo and against change. It seems inconsistent to argue against change to a law which you consider (to some extent) unjust, but perhaps I'm mis-reading your position.

    For my own part, I'm in favour of changing the law, but as far as software is concerned, FOSS fixes the situation enough that I'm not too fussed (other than to oppose deleterious changes, like ACTA, three strikes and DRM).

    The GIMP and Photoshop are indeed very similar. I think the main disadvantage of GIMP is that it doesn't natively handle colour spaces other than RGB, so it's a lot less convenient for HDR or CMYK work (needs inconvenient plug-ins and/or companion programs).

    BTW, re your other comment about FOSS — you're indeed right that most FOSS has a license restriction that demands that derivative works also be free. I don't know if that makes it less free or just differently; it's less free in some ways, but leads to more freedom in other ways.

    Why Google chose the Apache license rather than the GPL we can only guess. I'm sure they're familiar with both, so it was presumably deliberate.

  29. I don't see that the relevant moral reasons have changed — which ones do you think have changed? I don't see why you think that the distinction between the printing press and electronic copying is a relevant moral distinction.

    Of course if the law is unjust it merits change; but you and I have very different views of where the injustice lies. Just because I'm arguing against the sort of changes you advocate doesn't mean I'm in favour of no change at all, although frankly if given the choice of removing creators' rights or maintaining the status quo I would have to play the conservative. You seem to have the idea that I'm dealing in absolutes — that I believe that the right of the creator to negotiate the terms of supply comes before all else.

    The GPL licence requirement regarding derivative works is a restriction on the freedom of end users — but what it restricts is further restriction itself, so it does lead to greater freedoms down the line. This is why, if you're going to go the free software route, it's such a good idea, because it doesn't lead to the sort of problems we're seeing with Android. Bear in mind, also, that the GPL licence requirement regarding derivative works is an instance of "terms of supply", which a complete removal of copyright would render just as illegal, or at least as unenforceable, as DRM or EULAs or proprietary software itself.

  30. The biggest one is probably "whom does copyright restrict?" (whether natural or statutory). With the printing press, the only people restricted are those who copy professionally, for whom copying is either their whole business (publishers) or a major part of it (newspapers), and they're only restricted in their profession. With computers, the Internet and ubiquitous copying, the restrictions apply to pretty much everyone, professional or private, whether their business is copying-related or not. The right of creators comes up against the right of individuals to do as they wish with their own property in the privacy of their own homes.

    A more pragmatic one is the fact that the printing press had significant economies of scale and copies were made by the thousand. If someone is printing 50,000 copies of a book, it's quite plausible for them to have their agent negotiate with the author's agent, so it's reasonable for copyright to require that. With electronic copying making single copies cheap, the negotiation requirement becomes proportionally much more onerous. Even just the bookkeeping becomes noticeable when it needs to be done per copy rather than per thousand copies. The rights of creators begin to impose unreasonable burdens on others.

    As regards absolutes, I'm hardly arguing for absolutes either (although our respective ideal copyright reforms probably would differ). Part of the problem is that, given the Internet, it's difficult to come up with solutions that don't gut creators' rights in practice even if the changes themselves are quite limited. Eventually, one comes to the point of "When copies are free, you need to sell things which cannot be copied."

    Stallman's moral arguments were personal ones — why individuals in general, and he himself in particular, should refuse to participate in proprietary software; his work, mostly grass-roots and technical (writing a sufficient body of free programs that nobody would have to use proprietary ones). Certainly any reform would have to be careful not to kill the FOSS goose that seems to be laying software golden eggs.

  31. I don't see the rights of creators having to come up against the rights of individuals with their own property in their own homes. Creators have never had those rights, morally or legally, and the only reason they have them practically now is due to DRM and similarly unfair measures that, while intended to restrict copyright infringement, tend to also hinder people in doing what they wish with what is rightfully theirs, such as making backups, or reinstalling it after your system goes fring. I don't think most proponents of DRM intend to restrict people from creating backups, but the reality is that it does impose that restriction.

    I'll be a bit anxious to see how the DRM involved in the Mac App Store announced today will affect this — supposedly it's meant to allow users to install software on any computer they own. I'll be interested to see how it works in practice; I suppose it's a similar deal to the way you can buy an app for the iPhone and get the iPad version included, if you own one. If it does work, I'd hope to see other software vendors following suit. If it doesn't, I'd hope to see users voting with their dollars and buying software elsewhere. I have to say I'm a little surprised and potentially disappointed — Apple has a history of disliking DRM, despite its proprietary software offerings. None of the Apple software that I've bought has actually come with DRM for the last few years.

    If we're resigned to the point of "when copies are free, you need to sell things which cannot be copied", doesn't that mean that our only choice is onerous DRM? I find that rather implausible.

  32. Well, that's where copyright law is now, isn't it — it regulates the making of copies, and these days copies are made by everyday objects like children's toys and personal computers. We wouldn't be talking about the morality and legality of copying Photoshop for a friend if the only people technologically capable of copying were the professional copy-makers (as was the case with the printing press).

    The problem with DRM is that (a) it doesn't work, for fundamental reasons, and (b) attempts to make it work have bad side-effects, and also don't work.

    "When copies are free, you need to sell things which cannot be copied" refers to selling of things other than copies — for software, it's usually support and training and customisation — or, indeed, custom software to begin with, which in any case forms a large fraction of programming work. For music, it might be live performance (but there's probably some other, better model that hasn't been invented yet).

  33. BTW, one thing's been nagging at me — you wrote "if he isn't using it to make money himself" as one of the conditions for making sharing acceptable. That feels backwards to me — surely it would be more ethical to share with the needy than with the merely bored?

  34. I don't see how that follows — how the non-commercial clause forbids sharing with the needy rather than with the merely bored. The principle behind it is that commercial piracy is hypocrisy, since it is to impose terms of supply to one's customers when one has failed to honour the terms of supply imposed by one's suppliers. In most cases, as you pointed out, there are FOSS alternatives one could use if one were actually "needy".

  35. Well, that clause was from the end-user's point of view; if the end-user is not using it to make money, then presumably it's just for a hobby or for fun — hence my "merely bored". It the end-user is going to use it to make money, that includes situations where he really needs it, to feed himself and/or dependants. Accepting sharing in the former case but not the latter seems backwards.

    FOSS and other affordable alternatives apply to both the "bored" and the "needy" case, so they make no difference to the analysis.