Taking freedom further

Monday, April 16th, 2007

I’ve long believed there’s a general phenomenon that underlies the free software movement. It’s “volunteer-driven, internet-powered collaboration”. I think it will ultimately touch every industry that has any digital workflow. Lets face it, that’s pretty much every industry.

The phenomenon has three key elements:

  1. Freedom-driven licensing. If you want the magic, you have to set it free, because it’s the possibility of doing things for themselves that motivates people to build on your work. Just exposing the “source” (whether that’s code or other content) isn’t as interesting. Microsoft will show you the source to Windows these days, but they won’t give you the freedom to remix it.
  2. Community. The net allows us to build a community of eyeballs and fingers based on personal interest rather than personal geography. It used to be that companies always had to do the best they could with local talent – or fly people in and deal with visa issues (that’s why Microsoft is a big proponent of greater H1-B visa allocations). Today we can find the best talent wherever it is, talent that is really personally interested in the underlying issue. And we call that talent pool “community”.
  3. Revision control. I’m much happier to give you read AND write access to my stuff, if I can know who changed what, when, and easily revert it. And if that revision control allows cheap branching, then there can be multiple, parallel efforts to solve a particular problem.

Consider wikipedia in this light: it clearly meets all three criteria. Its content has a license that gives you genuine freedom. There is a big community that takes a personal interest in that content (actually, multiple communities, one which I call “the librarians” wants to make sure the institution itself is healthy, the others are communities that form around specific content, given the nature of wikipedia as a repository of knowledge). And of course every change is logged with some level of identity associated with it.

The linux kernel is the same, as are most of the components we associate with a GNU OS.

But why stop at just code and knowledge? I’m a big fan of the work of the Creative Commons, because they have taken to heart the idea of generalizing the licensing problem. And conferences like the Digital Freedom Expo in South Africa this week, which TSF has agreed to sponsor, are forums for discussing the ways in which these principles can apply to other domains. I would love to be part of the exploration of this phenomenon at all levels but Ubuntu is plenty of work for one lifetime. Nevertheless I think there are real opportunities, both social and commercial, in this idea.

Incidentally, one of the reasons I picked the Bazaar revision control project for use in our infrastructure, and why I sponsor it, is because I think it will be great to have a revision control system which can be adapted to manage LOTS of different kinds of content, not just code. And the Bazaar guys abstract things to an appropriate level to be able to do just this. I’d like to be able to see a house I like, and “bzr branch” the plans to that house, then share my modifications together with my experiences of living in that house so that others can merge the ideas they think worked best. All we need is bzr embedded in an architectural drawing application 😉

A number of folks have asked about the new “radical freedom” flavour of Ubuntu that I hinted at in the announcement of work on Gutsy Gibbon.

Part of that initiative is focused on code freedom – going further than anybody else, though, beyond the CPU down to the level of the code running in firmware on your peripherals. We want to highlight the good work of hardware vendors who have completely embraced that idea. Of course – if you REALLY want freedom then you need to run that flavour on a SUN SPARC chip in an FPGA, in which case you would have freedom to modify even the CPU itself, and everything running on it. Raising the profile of genuinely free hardware is one way I hope we can reach the point where we no longer choose to include any binary drivers in vanilla Ubuntu.

But a broader part of this “radical freedom” thrust is to explore freedom in other domains. If we ship a PDF, do we ship the source document? If we ship a JPG, do we ship the source artwork? If we ship a nicely edited video, do we ship the original, unedited recording so you can really remix it? If we ship music, do we ship the samples and the separated tracks?

Potent medicine indeed. I’m looking forward to seeing how far we can push the concept, just inside the Ubuntu project.

17 Responses to “Taking freedom further”

  1. Thorsten Wilms Says:

    In the artistic realm, opening the sources can have the additional aspect/motivation of revealing structure that isn’t clear or at all apparent in the final product. The artist might be proud of being well organized and giving the opportunity to learn from an example might be part of the art.

    Any source is only useful if a suitable environment to use is present or can be constructed. For example, with music, a number of effect plugins might have been used and it can be tricky to get all the same plugins. One thing tht saddens me is so many people asking for VST plugins in Linux audio. Binary blobs. Only a matter of time until they don’t run anymore.

    There’s always the risk of some required application having been updated and now works slightly different in a way that makes a source file useless. In short: Dependencies on specific versions of applications.

    What about architecture, design? Shouldn’t the reasoning behind it, the Why and not just the What and How be part of the sources?

  2. Roy Schestowitz Says:

    This wasa brilliant move. It’s all about choice and it’ll keep your critics quiet.

  3. Marc Says:

    The cool thing is, we’re starting this open-source-everything conversation from the standpoint of a software community. That means we have the power to influence software developers to include tools that facilitate sharing in the software they write. For example, graphics software might have a feature that allows users to “immediately open-source this document” by packaging it in a friendly manner and uploading to a sharing service. Same with music software, 3D software, etc.

    One of the best examples of open-source music file sharing that I remember was the Demoscene and those .MOD, .S3M, and .XM files. You sent somebody one of those, or posted it online somewhere, and they instantly had everything – the notation, the samples, everything. It inspired me to create my own music, as I had the tools right there in front of me to do so. A lot of composers I listen to got their start this way.

    So, I think it’s very cool that a software developer can have a huge impact on how well open sourcing works. Adding sharing features that give weight to open source principles can really get the ball rolling.

    On the other hand, I am a content creator and it can get very annoying when somebody *demands* that you release an open-source version of a graphics file, for example. Is it hypocrisy not to do so if I’m too pressed for time to bother? What if I’m a perfectionist and won’t release a file without cleaning it up first, by organizing and naming elements? That takes time. SI think this is one issue that needs to be addressed before too many people get turned off by rude, self-serving demands.

  4. Cybernym Says:

    Originally I would have shared your opinion Mark, but lately I do believe its the OpenStandards model and NOT the OpenSource model that will (and needs to) prevail.

    Having an entire community of random individuals forge a product – adds a level of chaos and unpredictability to a design. Each open source ‘artist’ drives it to where HE wants the goal to be. With large scale projects – you need a level of overall guidance and ‘closed wall’ architecture.

    Honestly – if I am a large firm and am waiting for a critical change to be put into the product – I want ONE throat to choke (even be it Microsoft?). I want to have predictability as to when and how the change will be done. I dont want an adhoc community fix to rectify my problem in the interim – only to be overwritten by the design of the community going foward.

    The chaos of OpenSource is degenerative. The rigour of Open Standards is good.

  5. Jamon Camisso Says:

    It isn’t about keeping critics quiet at all, it is about information and how it is managed and deployed. I admire those who can see in shades of gray and realize the utility of making compromises along the road to that envisioned “radical freedom.” Critics can make as much noise as they like, but if they stepped back and took a look, they’d see that compromise is a means to an end in this case (and Bazaar just plain rocks!).

    I think many people are becoming more and more aware of just how much work and creativity go into creating any finished product, be it a song, graphic, or in this case, an operating system. If you can open people’s eyes to the value of any kind of production as mostly process oriented, with an end goal that occurs as part of the process (the driving force, the last iteration of the process etc.), I wonder how much freedom will just become a part of that process and be taken for granted.

    Such an approach ensures that users and developers (or artists etc.) can participate in a truly free manner, even if a compromise requires the end product be a little less free than some would like. It is a win win situation, an incremental process that I will call “freedom bootstrapping”. Hopefully one day there will be no need for the word “radical” when describing freedom.

  6. Demian Says:

    Well, I, as a designer, am tired of A-list bloggers (specially those who are designers), telling that Linux fonts are ugly and making nothing to change that.
    The font business is an Oligopoly, with Adobe as the head of the show.
    And most designers do nothing to help embrace the same philosophy of open source to font design (the same designers that praise Firefox for it’s respect to standards.)
    I’m just a little designer in Spain but I’m doing something about it (http://electriblog.com/?p=96)
    And if you’re a designer and read this: do something. Designe some fonts and free them.
    I, too, hope this same way of thinking translates to other levels of our lives.

  7. jose Hevia Says:

    I agree. Today the Internet world opportunities are mainly used by computer geeks(concurrent version systems, working online…).

    But free your hard work for others to use seems counter intuitive and is not going to happen unless there is a good reason for it.Sources access means possible abuse by others.

    Look at european satellite data. It’s paid with public taxes, but people can’t access the sources! Only a couple companies can. If they were public, public derivative works (maps, weather…) would be BETTER than the one made by bureaucratic companies or functionary workers.

  8. GoatTuber Says:

    I like the sound of the “radical freedom” version, and I suggest the name Nudebuntu for it, as it bares it all. As for shipping images, audo, and video along with their original sources, I think the originals are a bit much to be shipped with the distro. Instead, have a centralized media library where those interested could browse through the different media and download only what they’re interested in.

  9. Yfrwlf Says:

    Me and my friends have long entertained ideas like these. There is a lot of power in community, and more-so in empowered communities, which is what it’s all about. Giving power back to the individual. I think a lot of what makes Free Software special is that it removes vendor lock-in and allows true competition. If you extend this further, allowing companies and ideas to compete unfettered by laws, I think you will get much more rapid technological advances, at least in most areas. OSS proves this theory correct, at least in this realm, as it approaches overtaking other existing industry models.

  10. Steve Parker Says:

    Good man. Well done.

    I have to respect the GnuSence guys (and, of course, Debian-Free). This is a very good way of dealing with the situation.

    Well handled.

  11. Jose Says:

    >> Honestly – if I am a large firm and am waiting for a critical change to be put into the product – I want ONE throat to choke (even be it Microsoft?). I want to have predictability as to when and how the change will be done. I dont want an adhoc community fix to rectify my problem in the interim – only to be overwritten by the design of the community going foward.

    This is exactly why you should go with real open source and not Microsoft’s sharedsource license. With the GPL, for example, you can always stop following the community. Just take the version that has 95% of what you need (you get this for free, complements of the community), and fork and maintain effectively a proprietary version from then on. The GPL will ensure that the vendor give the source to the client. Further, if you don’t distribute any more, the fork can grow however the client wants for all time and the code need not be shared with anyone else.

  12. Matthew Flaschen Says:

    Software freedom is most important to me, but I agree that including only free media is also a gopd idea. Keep in mind, there’s no need to ship the media source by default (just like free software source isn’t shipped by default). Just offer it in a source package (apt-get source) the same way software source is offered.

  13. Freedom of Collaboration (by Sandro Groganz) Says:

    […] Mark Shuttleworth says: I’ve long believed there’s a general phenomenon that underlies the free software movement. It’s “volunteer-driven, internet-powered collaboration”. […]

  14. Tomer Chachamu Says:

    ‘If we ship a JPG, do we ship the source artwork? If we ship a nicely edited video, do we ship the original, unedited recording so you can really remix it? If we ship music, do we ship the samples and the separated tracks?’

    Not on the CD, I hope. 🙂

  15. Everybody loves Eric Raymond » Taking freedom further Says:

    […] Mark Shuttleworth: Taking freedom further […]

  16. Choice Computers » Trans Drumulator Express - part II Says:

    […] And, educators are pre-disposed to crave professional development.like Linus and his security blanket. If classrooms isn’t where it’s at for learning, then how do I get to wherever that is, and make a living from it? Tom Hoffman’s suggestion to read Mark Shuttleworth is helpful. […]

  17. Amir E. Aharoni Says:

    I though of reporting this as a bug on Launchpad, but i’ll put it here first …


    Ubuntu is both a popular distribution and one that is relatively purist about Free Software.

    Despite that, i couldn’t find an *easy* way on any Ubuntu-related website to test whether a computer will work with Ubuntu without the need to use restricted drivers *before* i buy the computer.

    Until now everything was an afterthought – for years i installed Linux after i bought the computer and all the time i ran into problems because there were no drivers or because there were no free drivers.

    Now i want to test that a computer will be completely usable with only Free Software – but i couldn’t find any sane way to do it without being a hardware guru, kernel hacker and master decryptor of lspci output.

    I already looked at gNewSense webpage ( http://wiki.gnewsense.org/Main/RecommendedHardware ) and FSF’s Hardware compatibility page ( http://www.fsf.org/resources/hw/ ). Still too hard to decypher.

    I asked on the forums several times. Some say “buy a Dell/System76” – well, at least some Dells and System76’s use NVidia drivers, which are either non-Free or technically crippled. Some say “Google is your friend” – but no, in this case it is not: It is damn hard to check every single device and be sure that it has a free driver.

    Some people say that i worry too much and that it is just not too important. Maybe; I understand a few things about software, but i really don’t claim to understand ALL of the technical implications of non-free drivers and firmware, so one could say that i listen to Richard Stallman’s preaching about freedom too zealously; but i believe that this might be important to Ubuntu considering Mark Shuttleworth’s announcement of the extra-free Gutsy Gibbon edition. Who will bother to try to install it, if it’s too damn hard to find a properly free computer which can run it?

    I know that this sounds very pretentious and i am not a notable member of the Ubuntu community, but i think that this is a bit of a meta-bug, a bit like the famous “Bug #1”.

    Any ideas how can that be made easier?