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From the Desktop: T is for twm and Tracking Originality

Recycling old texts

  • January 23, 2001
  • By Brian Proffitt

The Web is an interesting medium for the communication of information. At no time in our planet's history has so much information been made available to so many people. Truly a miracle of modern technology, right?

I tend to wonder sometimes how much of this information is original and how much is "borrowed" from some other source.

"There are no new ideas," one of my college roommates told me. This was about the only interesting thing he had to say, since he was a lot of flash and little substance, and it stuck with me, even after he drove us into the side of a house later in my freshman year.

Last year I went to a Birds of a Feather session for technical writers at the New York LinuxWorld Expo. To my amazement, I was made to listen to a bunch of people at this session bemoan the fact that there wasn't more open source publishing in the world.

I had seen open source publishing in action before, of course, on various projects such as the Linux Documentation Project, and other projects within the Sourceforge Web repository. But these people were talking about something new--applying open source policies to publications already copyrighted.

Needless to say, I was pretty upset with them.

And I then found myself in a sudden wash of guilt. Was I being a hypocrite for espousing the merits of open source on one hand, and yet being completely self-righteous about keeping my own works protected?

Fortunately, guilt is not something I am accustomed to feeling for any great length of time, and I rejected this notion out of hand.

Copyright may be the root of all evil in some open source advocates' minds, but a lot of people still use it as the contract under which they publish their works. And if someone creates something with a copyright, then this should be respected as absolute.

Unless they go into an open source project knowing their work is going to be modified and (ideally) improved upon, writers should not have to worry about someone coming along and messing up or borrowing their work.

This thought has been with me for a while now, and it recently bubbled up to the surface when I went looking for the creator of this week's window manager, twm. This would be one Tom LaStrange (who is one tough man to find, by the way).

I hit my usual search engine haunts when I went looking for a contact for Mr. LaStrange, and right away I noticed something very interesting. In several different Web pages, the exact same passage was used to describe twm: "...TWM (the Tab Window Manager, aka Tom's Window Manager, after Tom LaStrange, the main author"

I counted no less than 16 instances of this passage out there on the Web on the day I looked. This column will likely make it 17.

Most of these instances were on private, non-copyrighted Web sites, made by people who were describing different window managers for X. No big deal, right? What really tickled me was that essentially the same passage shows up in two books from Macmillan Publishing, Red Hat Linux Unleashed and UNIX Unleashed.

Am I auditioning for the copyright police? Not at all. This is not like someone grabbed the script to Episode II of Star Wars and posted it on the Web for all to see. The sharing of this passage of text is not even a blip on the scheme of bad karma.

But while it does little harm to whomever the original author of this passage was, I think it sort of cheapens the quality of information being disseminated on the Internet. There is a lack of originality born from this kind of thing that runs completely counter to what open source is really about: the cumulative effect of having the original ideas of the many applied to a single project.

There may be no new ideas but there should always be an effort to find new ways to communicate any old idea.

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