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.comment: Leave the Front Door Unlocked, Too - page 2

An Interesting Week if Property Matters

  • August 1, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

The reason it's trotted out so often is that it just about always works: Convince the majority that it wants something which is owned by the minority, then convince them that they are entitled to it. A few years ago The New York Daily News commissioned a poll, the finding of which was that 53 percent of New Yorkers believed that the rich should be taxed more heavily. This datum is useful only in that it showed that at least 53 percent of New Yorkers don't think of themselves as rich. (Bill Gates's father, who has sponsored newspaper ads in favor of higher taxes, does not live in New York.)

The fact is, people work for a living, or ought to. Even the people who write the Linux kernel and the various packages that make it into a full-featured operating system. That's why you see all those company names on their email addresses.

The so-called "free" licenses, supposedly good intentions notwithstanding, do nearly everything possible to confound this economic fact, totally at the expense of those who do the work. That's why you've been seeing more and more names with free software company email addresses drop out of the process entirely, as they are laid off, or enter the reverse of the underground economy: disappear inside companies where they can develop proprietary stuff for the companies themselves, never to be seen or used by anyone else.

But even if you are among those who still believe that a "free" software license contains some loophole whereby people can actually earn a survival living, you can scarcely endorse the idea of the DSL.

Stutz proposes that works ought to be created and then turned loose with very few restrictions as to what may be done with them. You may copy them, put them on the web, change them (such as, say, inserting "not" before every verb, or putting the faces in photographs on, say, naked bodies) so long as you specify the parts the original creator provided and make the original work available, by URL or something. And your derivative must be published with the same conditions.

Let me explain what this means: Let us say that you are a writer, a real idiot savant, capable of writing a book and getting it published but so dimwitted as to be talked into the DSL. Your book can be changed entirely as to meaning, updated, altered in any way imaginable, so long as it's retitled sufficiently to distinguish it from the original, and you have nothing to say about it, nor if money is made from it are you entitled to any.

The fundamental notion behind "free" licenses is that all new thoughts are like scientific advances, and that no one "owns" the speed of light. Scientific advances, it is reasoned, are built atop other scientific advances. We'd be in a hell of a mess if everyone had to invent his or her own wheel.

And with basic science, that's true enough. And that's why virtually all basic science that's being done is subsidized by some great institution or foundation. Otherwise, you'd get home and find a subatomic physicist repainting the living room with the proceeds from grandma's ottoman.

But does it work in other fields? Is software coding, for instance, science, or is it art? It certainly exhibits characteristics of both. It fits within a specified set of rules or it won't run, but if it were the mere entering of code, there would be no difference between good coders and bad ones, good software and bad, would there? Yet, given the set of rules, it is possible and often desirable for software to be a community project. (Even so, look at the mailing list of any substantial project, and you'll learn that the community is a contentious one.) The science metaphor continues, to the credit of licenses such as the GPL, when someone is able to take an existing body of code and write a front end for, say, KDE.

(The problem with licenses such as the GPL is that they attempt to broadly formalize what ought to be narrow and informal. Newton's work managed to enter physics without the help of a trick license.)

Enter now art in all its many forms (or environmental artifacts or design science, or whatever they call it in the pastel regions -- the sentence I quoted, on which the purpose of the DSL hinges, doesn't make this or anything else clear).

Have you ever seen a piece of art or a book created by a community? It's graffiti, in the case of the former, and unreadable, in the case of the latter (the lone exception being a paradoy potboiler sex novel, "Naked Came the Stranger," written by a couple dozen Newsday writers as a stunt, and published in 1969 under the pen name "Penelope Ash"). Yet Stutz proposes that writers and artists publish their work under his potty little version of the GPL.

Let's take it for a spin. Let's grab a paragraph or two from the DSL (which, interestingly, is not copyright under the DSL -- makes you wonder, doesn't it?) and fork them up:

7. WARRANTY.

THE WORK COMES WITH ABSOLUTE WARRANTY, EXPRESS AND IMPLIED, TO THE EXTENT PERMITTED BY APPLICABLE LAW, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO THE IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY OR FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE.

8. CLAIMER OF LIABILITY.

IN EVERY EVENT SHALL THE AUTHOR AND CONTRIBUTORS BE LIABLE FOR ANY DIRECT,

INDIRECT, INCIDENTAL, SPECIAL, EXEMPLARY, OR CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES

(INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, PROCUREMENT OF SUBSTITUTE GOODS OR

SERVICES; LOSS OF USE, DATA, OR PROFITS; OR BUSINESS INTERRUPTION)

HOWEVER CAUSED AND ON ANY THEORY OF LIABILITY, WHETHER IN CONTRACT,

STRICT LIABILITY, OR TORT (INCLUDING NEGLIGENCE OR OTHERWISE) ARISING

IN ANY WAY OUT OF THE USE OF THIS WORK, ESPECIALLY IF ADVISED OF THE

POSSIBILITY OF SUCH DAMAGE.

And in keeping with the requirements of the license, I must specify my changes and credit the original author, as well as specify where his work can be found.

I deleted "NO," " IS PROVIDED 'AS IS,' AND," "LY NO," "DIS," "NO," "OR," and "EVEN IF," and added "ABSOLUTE," "AND" and "ESPECIALLY." The remainder is contributed by Michael Stutz. The original text is available at http://linuxtoday.com/news_story.php3?ltsn=2001-07-26-001-20-PS.

Yes. That certainly works well, doesn't it? And I could call it Dennis's Silly License and put it out there as the DSL, were the DSL published under itself. Now imagine applying this method of alteration to a book! And specify the changes -- that would be a chapter everybody would read, wouldn't it.

But it would have to get a lot goofier than that to achieve the silliness quotent of the DSL.

He has published a book under his license; the book is available online, perhaps as proof that online is not a good way to read books. I suspect that pretty much anything else published under it ought to be printed, as his preamble suggests, on rolls suitable for use in a room where much reading is done -- "Hey! Where's Chapter Three?" "Sorry. I ate vegetarian last night and used it this morning." -- but it does raise an amusing point: Anyone who wanted to could take his book, change a few words, add "The Much, Much Better" to his title, throw it up on a low-bandwidth website someplace for free, and publish it as a book for two bucks less than his version, and, if he were to take advantage of the low prices publishers contractually offer authors on returns, make sure he had gifts for all imaginable occasions for the rest of his life. Which he may well have anyway, if the book imparts the kind of thinking that its copyright does.

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