Archive for politics

Open source and open music

This is my notes from the talk I did at the 2009 Plone Conference in Budapest, reworked into a series of blog posts. This is part 3 of 3. Read part 1 and part 2 as well.

Who wrote what?

In previous posts I discussed how sharing of intellectual property is the basis for the improvements in all kinds of technology, and as a result the basis for the quality of life we enjoy today. So if sharing of intellectual property works for software, steam engines and medicine, is there any intellectual property where it doesn’t work? Well, the big debate today about intellectual properties is about file sharing. Well, lets first take a look on what the effects of the current non-openness is.

Take the song Happy Birthday, for example. It was written by Patty Hill in 1893, but with the lyrics “Good Morning to All” by her sister Mildred. It was a song kids where supposed to sing to their teacher at the beginning of the day. The earliest example we have of the melody together with the happy birthday lyrics is from 1912.However, in 1935, the song and it’s lyrics got a registered copyright to a company, crediting a well known composer called Preston Ware Orem, although he doesn’t seem to actually have claimed to write it. Currently Warner owns the copyright, which ends in 2030. Warner has the copyright, bought from somebody who didn’t write the song, while she who did write it didn’t get a nickel and died in 1916 anyway.

And for another example we can take well known Monty Python collaborator Neil Innes. He wrote the hit song “How Sweet to be an Idiot”.

Compare this with another even bigger hit, Oasis “Whatever”

Yes, the first bars are very similar. Not exactly the same, but very similar. But the rest of the melodies are completely different. And those bits that are similar are not exactly very complex, and I wouldn’t be surprised if other songs used pretty much the same melody even before Neil Innes. But in any case, Oasis got sued.

Another example is Bobby McFerrins “Don’t Worry Be Happy”.

Compare it to 4 Non Blondes “What’s up”.

Yeah, the songs are pretty much the same. And this time it’s all the way. But as far as I can find out, 4 Non Blondes has not been sued, and Bobby McFerrin has no co-writing credits. But then again, his lyrics goes “Here’s a little song I wrote, you might want to sing it note for note”, so I guess he can only blame himself.

How come one song that is only a little similar gets sued while one that is very similar doesn’t? The problem here is that there is no way to determine if a song is similar except going to court, and there it completely depends on how good your lawyers are. So copyright for music definitely has some problems.

Incremental improvements

One of the major arguments against patents I had was that innovation typically was done in small incremental steps. And one argument when it comes to music could be that music doesn’t work that way. But let’s listen to the riff that starts Rolling Stones 1965 hit “The Last Time”.

Then listen to how The Andrew Oldham Orchestra reinterpreted this song with strings some years later.

In 1997 The Verve used a sample from that song in their song “Bittersweet Symphony”. They also added the distinctive string section that is the hook that made this such a massive hit.

And recently New York DJ and Remix artist BEARBOT used that hook in a remix:

[No video. Here is an excerpt, and here is a link to the whole song on]

Obviously it’s subjective, but I personally think each step here is an improvement. Clearly, incremental improvement is possible. And musicians have always stolen good things from each other, and of course this incremental improvement is how popular music before the advent of recording worked. Folk music was always about taking the best things you heard and putting them together in new ways. Music is also a tower of babel, although a highly subjective one.

So, wait, wait, wait, wait, am I saying copyright should go away? Yeah, I think I am. But what should the poor artists make money from? Well, small struggling artists doesn’t sell much albums anyway, and make most of their income from shows and t-shirts, and big artists will sell a lot of albums anyway. And you can always rely on the fanaticism on fans.

Nine Inch Nails excellent Ghosts quadruple album was sold in various version. You can download Ghosts I for free. Ghosts II-IV costs 5 bucks as a download. You can buy the CD set for ten dollars (that’s what I did), or the deluxe edition for 75 dollars. There was also a ultra deluxe edition. Yes, was. It’s sold out, all 2500 copies, for 300 dollars each. Yeah, that’s 750.000 dollars in income, just from the ultra deluxe edition. And this is from a quadruple album of experimental instrumental electronic music. Not exactly your typical mainstream album, in other words.

The return to open source

But in open source we need copyright so we can put up licenses that means people can’t steal the code and are forced to share back, right? Well, first of all, licenses lead to complicated trouble. Take dtrace, which apparently is a great piece of unix software. But it’s CDDL license is apparently incompatible with GPL. So it hasn’t been ported to Linux, and exists only under OSX and BSD. So licenses are not only good.

And surprisingly, open source seems to work better the less you demand of people. You don’t need to demand that somebody gives back or behaves well. This is becase I don’t suffer from you not helping me. Intellectual property can be copied infinitly. Me sharing and idea with you doesn’t stop me from using it.

As mentioned, intellectual property works best if everyone shares. If you don’t want to share back even though you get to use my code, demanding that you do so is unlikely to make a difference. You don’t want to share, because you’re a dick. And you’ll continue to be a dick even if I demand that you aren’t. What I can do though, is make it dead easy for you to give back if you want to, by giving repository access to anyone, or using bitbucket, where anyone can make a fork, and then ask you to merge the changes back. Basically, instead of demanding that you are not a dick, I should make it easy for you not to be one.

So in conclusion, if people share their inventions, advances and intellectual property, everybody’s life gets better. Therefore I strongly suspect that all restrictions on sharing of intellectual property should be removed.

We humans can, and we are already, building a tower to the heavens. And what gets us there faster is more individual freedom. What we need most in this world is the freedom to collaborate if we think it’s in our individual and personal self-interest to do so. If we have that, then nothing we imagine to do will be impossible for us.

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Why patents does not work

This is my notes from the talk I did at the 2009 Plone Conference in Budapest, reworked into a series of blog posts. This is part 2 of 3. Read Part 1 and Part 3 as well.

Ruby on Rails and patents

Open source is a “Tower of Babel”, an example of people collaborating on building something big and complex. But the liberty to collaborate is not entirely unchallenged. There is plenty of lobbying for software patents, and software patents is a brake on the collaboration that is open software. As a first example, I’m going to take the web framework Ruby on Rails, which came in 2004. It created a lot of interest and inspired many other frameworks, and helped spread many good web technologies, like web object publishing, model-view-controller type frameworks and object-relational mappers. All of these technologies have the last couple of years become standard for web frameworks, and almost all new web frameworks use them.

But Ruby on Rails didn’t invent any of these technologies. The first system to use web object publishing was Zope, created in 1996 by Jim Fulton. The model-view-controller principle was created by Trygve Renskaug in 1979. The first implementation of those principles for web frameworks was done 1999 in a framework called Struts. I don’t know who first made an object-relational mapper, but they existed well before Ruby on Rails.

If any of these technologies had been patented Ruby on Rails wouldn’t have been as good and therefore not as successful. It wouldn’t have helped spread these technologies, and the new web frameworks created today would also be worse then they are. Software patents acts as a hindrance on development in the software industry. The more software patents we have, the worse our software will be.

And almost anything is patentable in software. Microsoft has a patent on using the “is” operator in Basic. That means that no other maker of Basic can have an “is” operator. Microsoft didn’t invent the “is” operator nor Basic. Does it make sense to anybody that they have this patent? It’s a bit like somebody patents the idea of watching TV in bed without having invented either TV’s or beds. If that’s patentable, then almost any idea in software is patentable.

Our only hope is that software patents will be ineffective so we can ignore them, but that’s very unlikely. In 1988 a company called Brooktrout patented the sending of faxes from computerized voice telephony systems, without having invented either the sending of faxes from computers, or computerised voice systems. It’s another case of patenting watching TV from bed. But although Microsofts patent is perfectly valid as they were probably the first to have an “is” operator in Basic, Brooktrout were not the first to send faxes from voice systems. There was what is called “prior art”. So you might think that the patent was invalid, and nobody needed to pay Brooktrout, but that’s not the case. There was some lawsuits and counter suits, but they settled out of court, presumably for less then what a longer court case would have cost. So it’s perfectly possible to patent things you didn’t even invent.

Other patents

But what is it that makes software patents different from other patents? Well…. I don’t know. I don’t think there is a difference. Watt had patents for his condenser, practically giving him a monopoly for some 25 years.
And an indication that this was bad was that steam engine development really took off in 1800, when his patent expired. It’s not unlikely that Watts patents delayed the invention of things like steam trains with several years.

Watt himself was for years hindered to use his steam engine to generate circular motion, because there was a patent on cranks. Yes, cranks. Of course, cranks had been known for hundreds of years before James Pickard patented it, but he still got a patent. Makes sense? No. And Watts wasn’t alone in inventing the condenser either. Humphrey Gainsborough also came up with the same idea, at around the same same time, but he didn’t patent it, so he didn’t get rich from it. Fair?

But isn’t patents needed? Isn’t it so that without patents no research and development would be done? Well, why not? We make money in the open source world by selling our knowledge while still sharing it freely. Why wouldn’t that work for other industries? Sure, the argument is that research and development is expensive. Patents are needed so the the research cost can be recuperated. But developing software also costs money, and estimates the cost of developing the Linux kernel from scratch today would be $136,593,689. That is a lot of money. And research suggests that in fact, patents don’t increase innovation, and may even work as a hindrance.

As we see with the steam engine, most inventions even in mechanics are small and incremental. Should we really be allowed to block development like that just because we made an incremental improvement, or came up with a new use of something? In medical research there is never one single company that has done all the research needed to develop a medicine. Research on how the disease works are done over a long time by many companies and universities. Yet one company get the patent.

Another problem with patents it means nobody is researching things that are unpatentable or hard to sell. Medicine for malaria is one example, diets and losing weight is another. You can’t take out a patent on what food to eat, or make money from it. With an open source type medicine, your selling point is no longer a patented drug, but your knowledge. And that makes all knowledge profitable. Open source medicine might actually increase the development of medicines, and at the very least give access to medicines to more people. And that’s not a bad thing.

On to Part 3.

This is my notes from the talk I did at the 2009 Plone Conference in Budapest, reworked into a series of blog posts. This is part 1.

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Why open source works

This is my notes from the talk I did at the 2009 Plone Conference in Budapest, reworked into a series of blog posts. This is part 1 of 3. Read part 2 and part 3 as well.

The Tower of Babel

Once upon a time the people of the greatest city on earth decided to build a tower so high it would reach the heavens. You all know this story, and it’s often told as a moral story showing that you should not build for your own glory, or try to compare yourself with God. But when you read the bible, those morals are not there. What it actually says is that when humanity is united there is nothing we can not do. And I think there might be something to that.

Because since the dawn of humanity, most people have lived a life that was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Life expectancy was not higher than 30 years, from the stone age up to around 1800. Starvation was a constant threat. People would die of diseases we today view as trivial. But today our problem is not lack of food, but obesity. Hygiene and medicine has given us a global life expectancy of 65-69 years. In the western world, it’s upwards 80, and a recent report said that half of everybody born today will live to be a 100.

Today we live long and in relative prosperity and peace. And most of these improvements have come during the last 200 years. And they have come because people have helped each other. And I’m not talking about giving money away, or working in political organisations. Those are good things, but it is just a very small part of humanity that does those types of things, it’s also really hard to do great things or affect the world by yourself, because even when you are a part of political organisation and that organisation has power you still have to fight with the other members over what to do, how and when. We won’t get a tower to the heavens that way.

Kings, lords and guilds

No, you have the most power to improve the world when make your own little world better. When you make your personal life better you don’t have to fight against so many. Maybe you wife, kids and work mates. It’s an easier battle than fighting a whole parliament full of politicians. But this is not cooperation, you say, and you are right. It’s not. We get the real effect when we, in our attempts to improve our own lives, come up with a clever solution to do so and share it with everybody else so they can get the same improvement, and they then share back. That’s cooperation.

But this sharing was very unusual in most of humanities history, because there was very little reason to share, or in some cases a large opposition to sharing. And this is why the improvements have happened mostly during the last 200 years. Because before the industrial revolution economic activities was always strictly controlled either by kings, feudal lords or guilds. They saw their purpose to regulate the production, so a guild of blacksmiths, for example, would make sure that there was not too many blacksmiths, because that would lower the prices, and they would also make sure blacksmiths didn’t compete with each other within the guild.  They wanted all the blacksmiths to have a reasonable amount of work and income. That meant that your quality of life pretty much was fixed. You had a place in society, and you could not do much to improve it. But in 17th century England this was slowly changing.

The industrial revolution

Wool was becoming a big industry, and this industry was a “cottage industry” that happened in the country side, where there were no guilds. Also the iron industry started blooming at this time, and again, this happened on the country side, because that’s where you had the coal and ore. The feudal system had also been in decline for hundreds of years, and by the beginning of the 18th century instead of feudalism and guilds, England had an economic system with entrepreneurs who were constantly trying to find ingenious new ways of producing things better, faster and cheaper, and the industrial revolution was in full swing.

Let’s take one of these entrepreneurs as an example. This guys name was James Watt, who was famous for inventing the steam engine. But did he? Let’s take a look at the history of the steam engine.

The first commercially useful steam engine was built by a man called Thomas Savery, in 1698. Today we wouldn’t even recognize it as a steam engine, it didn’t even use any pistons. It was very inefficient, but could pump water from a mine. Frenchman Denis Papin at the same time has invented the pressure cooker, and realizing the power created by this invented the piston. In 1712 Thomas Newcomen combined the ideas of Savery and Papin, and built the Newcomen steam engine and succeeded in pumping much more water than the Savery engine.

At this point the steam engines did not get their force from steam pressure. Instead, they got power from the vacuum created when the steam condensed, after spraying in water to cool down the piston. And here James Watt comes into the picture. Instead of cooling down the piston, he kept the piston hot all the time, and let the steam cool in a separate condenser, that was kept cool all the time. That made the steam engine four times as efficient.

But soon high pressure steam engine got popular, thanks to the development by people like William Murdoch and Richard Trevithick, and many others who made many, many small improvements, and we ended up with the type of engines that could be used in locomotives. James Watts separate condenser was an important invention, yes, but neither the beginning nor the end of the steam engine.

Sharing as a self-interest

So who did then invent the steam engine? Well loads of people did, together. Many men, most of them probably lost in history, cooperated on inventing the steam engine. The steam engine is a tower of babel, where people are working together, talking the same language: Engineering. But very few of these men saw it as cooperation. Each of the men that created the steam engine, from Savery to Trevithick and beyond did so for his own benefit. It was in his own self interest to make something better. And not because they themselves needed a better steam engine, but because they could share the improvement woth the rest of the world it in a way of sharing that is often overlooked: They would sell it. Yes, selling is sharing. If you have invented a better steam engine, making those and selling them will mean that more people get a better steam engine. The improvement has been shared.

And here is the important difference from the feudal and guild systems of medieval times: You yourself benefit from sharing, in this case economically. Since in medieval times you couldn’t compete on free market, then it was in practice hard to make money by sharing your improvements, so inventions spread slowly, and come into general use very slowly. As a contrast inventions have spread very fast since the industrial revolution, just because it has been possible to make money from them.

And this type of commercial sharing is important not only because it acts as an incentive to share, but also because you can’t tell a factory owner that he should use a separate compressor, because he doesn’t know how to build one. He needs to buy a machine from someone who does. So sharing just by sharing the idea is not enough.

So what does this have to do with open source?

Open source works for the same reason. You yourself get benefits from sharing your stuff. By saying “Hey, you can use my source code” loads of people will use it, and find problems, and most importantly improve it. You get improvements to your code, without having to spend money or time for it. Open source code is an excellent example of a tower of Babel, where we have many people working together using the same language, the language of computer science. And this tower is huge, with loads and loads of people and loads and loads of parts.

Just look at all the bits that’s needed to run a site like We need the Linux kernel and all the hardware drivers, the distro of choice, gcc, PHP, many third-party libraries and then WordPress and then finally the theme. And then you have a loadbalancer, a cache and webserver in front of that, and monitoring software to help you manage the servers, and a mailserver so you can send out notifications, etc. The complete list would be very long.

There are thousands of people who have written code just so this server can start up and show a web page. Thousands of people have cooperated to make sure I can run a blog. And none of these programmers did this to help me. They did not think “We need to get Lennart a blog”. They wrote the code they wrote, because they needed it or enjoyed it, and they made it open source so that others could use and improve it.

So in the open source world we cooperate and share in two ways. Most people in the open source world make money with open source in one way or another, either as employees or consultants. We make money because the pointy haired bosses have no use of the source code of a system since they don’t know how to use it, just like the factory owners needed steam engineers to build and run the steam engines. We make money by sharing our knowledge with them by doing work for them. And we also share the source amongst those who do know how to use the source. And here we share, not for money, but for help. We share so that people can share back.

So there you go. Open source works because it is a system where it is beneficial for you to share. We build a tower of knowledge and source together, because it’s good for us.

Continue to Part 2.

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Bono needs your help: Tell people that the world is getting better

As I mentioned, a better world is possible. What is good news is that we are getting there, albeit frightfully slowly. But people tend to think that it’s actually getting worse. A couple of days ago Bono on his blog wrote about this:

As I mentioned earlier in the week, there are 18 non-oil economies in Africa which have grown now at 5.5% for a decade, countries which on average have seen a 66% increase in aid, most are democracies and most have received full debt cancellation. With statistics like these it proves it’s still time to aid Africa. But it also proves it’s time to invest in Africa.  Any remaining capital out there couldn’t find a better long-term bet than the African subcontinent, that’s my tip for the week. It’s undeniable, there simply has been fantastic success and it’s a crime these breakthroughs against poverty aren’t better known. Can all of you out there in the blogosphere please focus on these statistics of success and help me understand why they aren’t better known?

He is completely right. And I’m going to try to do my part, as a part of the blogosphere. And if you aren’t convinced by Bono, then take a look at these two presentations from Gapminder: Hans Roslings presentation at TED, and the Human Development Trends 2005 flash presentation. I never get tired of Hans Roslings presentation, he says exactly what I have come to realise the last 10-15 years. And the most important comment is that we have a new world. It is no longer “us” the rich and “them” the poor. We are all in one big world, there are no longer a gap between the rich and the poor. The world is getting richer, it’s getting better and what we need is more of what we have has the last twenty-thirty years.

And it will come to no surprise what this is: More openness in the society. Many poor countries have moved from dictatorship or civil war towards an openly participatory democracy. Borders have opened for people and trade all over the world. Mobile phones have given a communication tool to the poor. The internet has opened up a universe of information. These are the changes that lie at the bottom of this slow but important change, and with more of it we can make these changes go much faster.

So help Bono and spread the word: The world is getting better. We can change it, we can get rid of poverty, and we in fact know exactly how to do it.

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Open people means creative society.

There has been some research done on different personality types in different states in the US. It’s worth notic that there is a pretty strong correlation with how open people are as personalities and how big part arts and computers is of the economy, and more importantly, there is correlation between this opennes and how many patents that is generated in the state.

Having an open mind means more ideas. This is not the same meaning of “open” as in my other posts, where I mean the open sharing of information, and the open functioning of the state. But it is not just an unrelated concept that happens to use the same word. Openness to other people and other ideas go hand in hand with sharing of information.

Openness is based on an initial trust, an assumption that other people in general are not out to hurt you. If you don’t have this attitude it will be much harder for you to share information. A government who does not trust it’s people will not be open, and will instead do it’s business behind closed doors, which is democratically problematic, and in turn means that the people will lose trust in it’s politicians.

So that an openness in attitudes towards others correlates with creativity and prosperity is not surprising. It’s harder to say what comes first, but we need to grow trust and openness in our relations as well as in policy.

[link via Marginal Revolution]

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From democracy to black mail

Apparently Wikileaks are starting to sell off leaks. So they have damning secrets about Venezuela? Auctioning them off opens up for Venezuela, via some agent, to buy it back. It’s a good guess that Venezuela can afford more than any magazine can for the same information.

Wikileaks have in one stroke gone from one of the smartest way of opening up democracy and preventing corruption I’ve seen in a long time, to black mail. This goes completely contrary to the ideas Wikileaks claimed to stand for when it started. Black mail is usually illegal. I’m not sure if it is when you are black mailing a government, but it is still despiccable.

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Competition is good for us, part 2

In part 1 I explained why competition is good for us because it makes things better, cheaper and more diverse. But one question remains: What the people who loose their jobs because of competition? At least competition is bad for them, right?

And of course, in the short term that’s true. They would, without competition, still have their jobs. But when looking at it in the long term, things look completely different. When one company has to close down because another company made something that was better or cheaper then they did, this is just a temporary setback. Because the money that are saved buy buying the cheaper product does not just disappear. They get used somewhere else, and more jobs are created in that sector instead. The people that lost their jobs may have to change their type of work, but competition has not made the available jobs fewer. And this works even across borders.

With cheaper clothes and toys thanks to imports from China, families with kids get more money over. Which they spend on buying other things, for example buy going to the movies more often. This expands the entertainment industry, which is largely american. So now we have the same amounts of jobs in the US, but many more jobs in China. This makes China richer, so Chinese people are now buying more goods from other countries, including the US. Although mostly they buy from Europe. Which makes Europe richer. So we buy more things from the US. In the end of this circle, all countries are richer than before. Because of competition.

So the losers are the corporations who go bust. It is then worth reminding ourselves who the open society is supposed to benefit. The open society is not supposed to benefit politicians or corporations. It is supposed to benefit the people. This is often forgotten. A good example of this is the so called browser-wars. Netscape Navigator was the biggest browser around until Microsoft came with their own browser, Internet Explorer. I remember this, and I also remember switching to Internet Explorer very quickly. It was simply much better than Navigator. It was also free. And the last blow to Netscape came when Microsoft started shipping Internet Explorer included with Windows. Many see this as unethical behaviour from Microsoft, as unfair competition. And of course it was bad for the company Netscape. But for everyone else it was good, because we got a browser that was not only better, we didn’t have to pay for it. Microsofts competition was bad for the company Netscape, but good for the people.

There were many other browsers out there too, like Opera, that was better than Internet Explorer, but you had to pay for. Nobody was very interested. The competition wasn’t good enough. And what happened without good competition? Well, Microsoft stopped improving Internet Explorer. It stayed on version 6 for years. Not until Firefox came around and we got a browser that was better, but also free, and open source to boot, did Microsoft wake up. Because they saw that their share was shrinking, rapidly, and they had to improve Explorer to make it better. This is a classic example of how improvement and invention stops if you don’t have enough competition. It also shows that in an open society, when that stop happens, this opens up for others to compete again.

Today, and this is what ultimately made me write these posts, Google announced a new browser, Chrome. It has a lot of improvements compared to Firefox, and even more compared to Internet Explorer. It also has a big name behind it, Google. It will be competition for both Internet Explorer and Firefox. But what ultimately will happen depends on how good it is. Will it be better than Firefox? Will Firefox be able to keep up? Will people who trust Microsoft, but doesn’t trust Firefox trust Google? We don’t know what will happen in the end, which of these browsers that will prevail. Some have expressed concern that this will spell doom for Firefox. That is possible, but that will only happen if Chrome is a much better browser.So yet again, competition turns out to be good.

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