On April 23, 2010, four student programmers nailed their 95 theses onto the door of the social web, by means of crowdfunding site KickStarter.com. The four were hoping to raise $10,000 to help them develop a free code software entitled Diaspora, intended as a federated alternative to FaceBook. They were blown away when their KickStarter campaign brought in a grand total of US$200,642. I wrote about this in August of that year in a post called ‘End-to-End Investment‘, as a follow up to post about deleting my FaceBook account, and transitioning myself to using only federated social websites, run on free code. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then, but I found myself thinking about all this again when I finally got some an email from the Diaspora newsletter (which I had signed up for a year or two before) singing the praises of Makr, a “meme” generating side project the Diaspora team had been working on. Project member Maxwell Salzberg:

“We put a lot of ourselves in Makr, and the result is something fun, silly, and collaborative, but also rooted in the same values as Diaspora* that we have championed since day one.”

I have to say I find that hard to believe when I go to the Makr site, and see the huge FaceBook logo at the centre of the front page. Salzberg also announced:

“We have also opened up signups on joindiaspora.com.

About time. Apparently there have been lots of different people running Diaspora “pods” for a year or two, but the main Diaspora page said nothing about how to find one and join it, so I went and signed up for JoinDiaspora with much anticipation. First impressions? What I saw looked pretty much like a clone of Identi.ca, itself a Twitter clone which runs on the free code StatusNet. Looks an awful lot like G+ too. Did Google fork the Diaspora source or copy the interface? Who is copying who here? I’m left thinking, they’ve had 3 years, and $200,000. Is this really the whole of the result? By contrast, the team behind Loomio - a consensus decision-making app also built in Ruby on Rails - have been coding since they left Occupy Wellington 8 months ago and crowdsourced just over $6000 using kiwi crowdfunding site PledgeMe. They already have a functional alpha, in testing by various community groups, and their code has been on GITHub since day 1.

So, Diaspora is a bit of an anticlimax for me, and it seems like I’m not the only person who feels that way. Developer and activist Mushon Zer-Aviv anticipated the potential for disappointment in a blog post in May 2010, noting that the problem wasn’t really a lack of software, or even source code, so much as a lack of open standards for secure, yet user-friendly, interoperability between existing systems. Perhaps this is why none of the candidates for “FaceBook killer” have taken its crown, let alone its head, despite a number of them (Diaspora included) being moderately successful in their own right.

This lack of mainstream traction for an open social web seems to be leading some people to the conclusion that “you can’t fight city hall”. Indeed, it’s hard to find anyone with regular internet access who doesn’t have an account on FaceBook. Twitter, MySpace, or LinkedIn. However, Like Google engineer Brett Slatkin, who has been a champion of the “federated social web” since forever, I “tweet” using Identi.ca, and hijack Twitter to rebroadcast my updates to anyone fool enough to use it ;) Neither of us has given up on the vision.  In the comment thread on Mushon’s post about Diaspora, I said:

“Seems to me the thing that’s really missing in decentralized social networking is an open standards body, the equivalent of Xiph.org, the XMPP Standards Foundation, or the Open Handset Alliance.”

One organisation which has since been created in an attempt to fill that void is the Open Web Foundation (OWF). Like the Apache Foundation and MicroFormats.org, which act as an incubators for experimental and emerging projects, OWF claim to be an incubator for proposed standards for sharing data between federated social network hosts. OWF advocates see it as an alternative to the proliferation of narrow standards groups like the XMPP and OpenID Foundations. The idea being that once a protocols is sufficiently developed, and attracting a critical mass of support, it can be offered up for ratification as official standards through bodies like the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Following in the footsteps of the Free Software Foundation, CreativeCommons, Open Data Commons, and Harmony Agreeements, which offer pre-packaged legal agreements intended to facilitate open collaboration, the OWF has agreements which can be applied to assert the “openness” of a proposed standard.

What I didn’t know in 2010 was that the Free Protocol Foundation had already been documenting some of the problems created by under-documented and patent-encumbered standards since 2000. I’m wondering if they would have been more productive recipients of the anti-Facebook money that got thrown at Diaspora’s KickStarter campaign. To be fair to the Diaspora  developers though, just because some of us wanted them to be Jack the FaceBook killer, that’s not what they promised. They have released source code for a federated social networking tool, which lots of people report getting good use out of, and that is what they promised. Watch this space.

Filed August 29th, 2012 under open social networks, free software

After publishing my suggestion that media productions which are publicly-funded should be released under a CreativeCommons (CC) license, I’ve been asked how this would affect the ability of the state to make a return on its investment over time. I would respond that this is the wrong question for a publicly-funded organisation of any kind to be asking. The state is not a media corporation. Getting a financial return on investment is not it’s institutional purpose.

I would argue that the public - for whom the state acts as a trustee of the money used to fund media - get a return on their investment every time we view, listen to, or copy a publicly-funded media work. We also get a return on our investment in the opportunities created for artists and broadcasters (journalists etc) to hone their craft, learn project management, and make better media work in future for us to enjoy, and be informed by.

That said, CC licensing and commercial success are by no means mutually exclusive. One source of case studies illustrating this is a book I’ve referenced before; The Power of Open. I strongly recommend everyone obtain a copy, and read it as part of preparing your case against those who will argue that giving corporations more “protection” of their “intellectual property” is the only way to build business success around education, entertainment, and the arts.

As I said in my last blog post on this topic, it would be possible to use the ‘Non-Commercial’ clause, so that anyone using publicly-funded media as part of a commercial activity would still have to negotiate a commercial license, including royalties. My main problem with this is that it makes interpreting the license much more complex. For example, student radio and community access radio are generally not-for-profit - their core mission is social rather than financial. But they do sell some advertising to cover costs, including some wages and salaries, which arguably makes them “commercial”. Are they be prevented from using publicly-funded media under a “Non-Commercial” CC license? How do they find out without seeking costly advice for specialist copyright lawyers - which is exactly what CC licenses were created to avoid.

Even if such use is considered “Non-Commercial”, is the cost of a chilling effect on not-for-profit groups, whose mission is to promote local creativity, really justified by the royalties collected from for-profit companies? One question that should definitely be asked of the public accountants is this: what royalties are currently received by the state from commercial licenses on publicly-funded media, and do they even outweigh the legal costs of negotiating and enforcing the license conditions?

The second problem is political. A “Non-Commercial” condition on publicly-funded media may be seen as ideological discrimination against business. Personally, I’m not against making businesses pay for use of the public commons, to balance out the tendency of profit-driven organisations to privatise profits and externalise costs (to paraphrase Nandor Tanzcos, among others). However, copies and representations of media works like television programs are an infinitely renewable resource, and I can see businesses arguing with some validity that they pay royalties already, every tine they pay their taxes.

Perhaps the solution is to provide those receiving funding with resources like the new License Chooser, and the CC Aotearoa/ NZ homepage which clearly explains the different licenses, and the main arguments for and against each one (including CC0, the Public Domain statement)? Require they use a CC license, which at minimum ensures members of the public can access and share the work, but leave the final choice of CC clauses to the producer? After all, both CC and public funding of arts and media are meant to empowering both creators and their audiences.

Filed August 22nd, 2012 under free culture

When I posted a query on the Haiku OS user forums asking which free code license covers Haiku, I was surprised by the aggressive rivalry between two main factions of users. One faction clearly favours the GNU General Public License (’the GPL’) and variants like the GNU Affero GPL or Lesser GPL. The other passionately promote a more laissez faire set of licenses; X11 License (’the MIT’), or ’the BSD’, which usually refers to the Modified BSD License, the Clear BSD License, or the FreeBSD License and sometimes also the Original BSD License. Packages used in Haiku are licensed under various licenses, but the majority are in the ‘MIT/BSD’ family.

All of the above are Free Software licenses, and all are ‘GPL-compatible’ (the only exception is the Original BSD due to its pesky ‘advertising clause‘). The key difference between the GPL and MIT/BSD is that the GPL also contains a ‘copyleft‘ or ‘share-alike‘ provision which obliges anyone publicly releasing software based on a GPL licensed project to release their changes and additions under a compatible license. The MIT/BSD licenses contain no such provision, and are the license of choice for companies who want a volunteer community to do most of their programming for them, while a handful of paid developers program proprietary add-ons exclusively for the commercial package. 

Imagine if Wikipedia was run by a for-profit corporation, ‘Lucrepedia’, which employed editors to fact-check all the entries included in a commercial Lucrepedia which they sold (in print or perhaps on DVD), without contributing any of their corrections back to the original Wikipedia. What prevents this happening with Wikipedia is the licenses which cover its contents; the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) and the CreativeCommons-Attribution-ShareAlike (CC-BY-SA) license. Like the GPL, these copyleft/ share-alike licenses do allow a for-profit company (or anyone else) to customize and even sell their own versions, but the licenses also say any improvements or additions commercials vendors make in their versions can be legally copied back into Wikipedia.

Like companies who make commercial products based on Wikipedia, companies who build on GPL software do benefit from the work of volunteer communities, but this is balanced out by the obligation the GPL places on them to contribute back to those communities. Advocates of the BSD consider this obligation to give back to the community dictatorial, and often say that the BSD is “more free” than the GPL. This is true, in the same sense that people who steal cars are “more free” than people who don’t. But for the same reason we usually don’t want people to be free to steal cars, I don’t think we want companies (or anyone) to be free to take from communities who build up something useful and valuable through sharing, unless those companies are also willing to share.

This is one reason I generally use distributions of GNU/Linux for my computers, and not the BSD family of operating systems. However, I think diversity in free code OS creates more resilience. I am interested in any OS which is endorsed by the Free Software Foundation. The Debian Project is working on getting endorsed, which could provoke a sea change among the many distros that use Debian as a base, and I’d love it if the Haiku developers made a commitment to follow the same path.

Filed August 10th, 2012 under free software, open source

Kia ora koutou

You are invited to be part of the AGM of the NZ Open Source Society on Monday 6 Aug, starting at 5:30pm. The AGM takes place online, by IRC, using Freenode. If you want to vote in the meeting, you need to be a financial member of the NZOSS. Dave Lane says:

“The process is pretty straightforward:

1. go to http://nzoss.org.nz/user/register and create a user account on the NZOSS site.

2. once you have a user account and log in, you can purchase a membership through the website’s e-commerce system. It’s $40 for a year.

3. you pay via bank transfer - for your reference, the account number is 03-0104-0411939-000

See you there!”

Alex King has booked space at the Presbyterian Support rooms for those of us in Otago who want to gather in person. The address is 407 Moray Pl, Central Dunedin. We intend to have the IRC conversation up on a big screen. Alex will bring an Access Point along to provide wireless internet, so bring your laptops, handhelds (”smartphones”) etc. We also intend to connect to the audio conference that will connect similar realspace locations in Tamaki Makaurau/ Auckland, Te Whanganui-a-Tara/ Wellington, and Ōtautahi/ Christchurch.

See you there! Ka kite!

Filed August 3rd, 2012 under open source
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