Free Software And Proprietary Dead-ends

Stumbled over this interesting discussion about WordPress “premium” plugins and themes, i.e. plugins or themes which are sold at a price, just like any other piece of proprietary software. WordPress Premium Themes have been around for a while, and they recently spawned quite a discussion on the WP-hackers mailing list, when over 200 themes was removed from the WordPress.com selection of themes.

The focus of the discussion is the Free Software Foundation’s General Public License (GPL), and whether plugins or themes based on a GPL’ed piece of software such as WordPress can be sold for profit.

There are several voices in this broad discussion, and to characterize some of the perspectives :

  • Commercial developers and start-ups, who need a way to make a living from what they do : create WordPress plugins and themes
  • WordPress users who demand more features and ever more clever ways to personalize and customize the software they use
  • Open source developers who feel cheated when what they’ve spent hours and hours developing is “sold” by others
  • Purists who feel that since WordPress is free (GPL’ed as well as free of charge) every component based on or rooted in WordPress ought also to be free
  • Pragmatics who tend to say that as long as the GPL is respected, developers may do anything with the code, and that plugins which are developed from scratch are not necessarily born GPL’ed

I think this is a crucial discussion for the future of open source and “free” software.

As far as my understanding of the GPL goes there’s nothing wrong with redistributing GPL’ed software, in fact this is the point of the license. The only condition is the software remains licensed under GPL or a similar license. That receivers in your end receive the same benefits that you had, is a key component of what is usually referred to as copyleft.

There’s nothing wrong with charging money for the redistribution of this code either. Noone says anybody should provide stuff for free, just because it is GPL’ed “free” software. What the freedom in “free software” means is that anyone who obtains the code also remains at liberty to redistribute the GPL’ed code and charge for it too, if he or she wishes to do so. We all have expenses, and there are all kinds of good reasons to ask money for the time and work we put into providing a service or a product to someone else.

The tricky thing is, that since users who buy a piece of GPL’ed software also has the full right to redistribute that software, the business model appears to be broken. It may not actually be broken, since there are many good reasons to pay to receive benefits with the software “purchased”. Someone who obtains a piece of GPL’ed software via a bittorrent network, won’t get the support and imminent future updates that someone who “bought” the software from the developer does. But if we toss this aside, that the business model appears broken is probably what leads some developers to pursue proprietary business models.

Now, there’s a perfect match between supply and demand in the users who wants new features and are willing to pay for them too, and the developers ready to supply new features. It appears pretty straightforward. It’s good for users and it’s good for developers, who make a living from what they do. Right? Wrong.

The advantage of using GPL or any other copyleft strategy is that the process of redistribution and refinement can easily be facilitated. If or when a useful feature is included in a version of the code, it can be adopted by the source developer or anybody else involved, so that everybody gains, whether they charge for it to others or not. It can facilitate the creation of a community around “the project”. The software is improved by community developers, and eventually the code or project may leverage much more than any individual developer is capable of.

If you use a proprietary model as a developer you’re shutting others out. As a proprietary developer you have to build your entire organization around the fact that all problems must be solved in-house or paid for. You’re in the business of constructing a costly operation, which must be paid for. In contrast, the free software developer may not have a great income from his work (someone in the linked discussion said he had received 50$ in donations at 20.000 downloads), but also has few expenses and obligations. Once a website has been set up, he can begin to facilitate the distribution and development of his project because it is GPL’ed. This of course doesn’t do it alone, but if it isn’t out there, it won’t be used and improved upon (for free) at all. If an open source developer has 20.000 downloads, it means his work is popular and things are working out. He ought to wake up and find a way to leverage all that traffic and interest to create even better software, which will attract even more users and reach even greater markets. I find open source developers are typically not very good at this, and there are no easy recipes for how to make it work.

My point is, however, that even while it may not seem so at the surface level, you’re in a much worse position as a proprietary developer, than the open source and free software hobbyist, who is capable of inviting global input and value to his work by using the GPL and has very few expenses doing so.

Now, what about the user? At a first glance, users get what they want, a theme or plugin of their choice and style. But the price they pay is not simply the money changing hands. They also become dependant on a company or a particular developer to provide for them the code and support they want. If the user becomes dissatisfied with the company’s service or the company goes bankrupt, or if the developer decides to go his own way leaving the product and it’s users behind, few will relate enough to the product to be able to pick up where he left. If a piece of code has had 20.000 downloads globally, it becomes a lot easier to find someone, for whom this piece of work is not just a strange mess. But it is also possible, for a user who can’t find somebody to help him, to dive into the code himself and learn to solve problems and create new features, and then redistribute his work.

I’m really great with developers selling their work, but I believe they’re shooting themselves in their feet, if they use GPL’ed software in the first place as a platform or market, and then do not use the powerful legal tools at their disposal in the GPL and other free licenses, to leverage the reach and further refinement of what they do. And I believe users who are too impatient with open source communities and hobbyist free software developers and pay for themes and plugins help trap themselves and their developers in closed circles, which will lead them nowhere while the open communities grow stronger. There’s a real danger however, that great developer talent will wind up in these kinds of dead-end relationships, which doesn’t expose their projects to the open scrutiny of global free software communities. There’s also a real danger that open source software projects won’t spawn the businesses and startups they need, in order to create thriving communities and cultivate collaborative efforts to create even better architectures for facilitating the development of great free software. This may happen if developers and startups decline from using the GPL or other copyleft strategies, out of the misunderstanding and fear that they can’t make money on something which is “free”.

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Barack Obama : Technology Empowers People

We believe that real change can only come from the bottom up. And technology empowers people to come together to make that change. —Barack Obama, speech at Google, Nov. 14th 2007.

What’s at stake in this election

I believe this US presidential election is a matter of grave importance, not just to the US but perhaps even more so to the rest of the world. First, the American leadership sets an example for the world. The damages caused by the one set by the administration headed by George W. Bush is best scrutinized in Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11. We need new leadership, a new vision and new examples to be set. We need a US president who can deliver this.

Second, the American economy influences the world’s economy. When a global economic power sinks into the bottomless financial pit of a brutal war of aggression, it not only sets a bad example for other nations, including Russia and all kinds of dictatorships, it also cannot help but bode ill for the world’s economy. We need a strong US economy, or at least a US economy which is capable of dealing with the challenges facing the United States internally, in order to lift the more serious challenges we face, such as world poverty and hunger and threats to our environment posed by our lifestyle and consumption patterns.

Third, and this is where we need real leadership, and real change, is to straighten out global priorities in the way the internet is, can and will be used. In particular, the US leadership is important in what is sometimes called ‘intellectual property law’. We need to stilt the draconian IP laws enacted in the US (I’m talking about the DMCA and similar legislation, if anyone should be in doubt). We need to stop these laws from becoming even more draconian, and we need to ultimately push them back. What’s at stake is hinted at in Lawrence Lessig’s marvelous book Free Culture, but isn’t limited to the remixing of music videos and animations – it’s our problem-solving capabilities which are at stake. Our ability to make good decisions based on trustworthy information, processed and exchanged freely using the internet, on a global scale, is at stake. If the US technology sector cannot lead the way because of the draconian American IP legislation, it will be a poorer world, and the struggle to get there will be harder and fraught with greater difficulties.

Barack Obama is now following you on Twitter!

As I am not American, unfortunately I can’t vote in the US presidential election taking place tomorrow. If I could I’d have no doubts. I’d vote for Obama. Not because he necessarily stand for and will enact all the things that I hope for the world, but because I think he will enact the kind of leadership, which sets an example and will facilitate the changes we need.

I have not been following the course of Barack Obama very closely, but even from a long distance he’s been able to make an impression. All thanks to the wonderful powers of the internet, which he’s utilized in his campaign with such intelligence and vitality. It made an impression when he followed me back on Twitter. Him or his campaign staff, either way, it’s an attention to detail which impresses. Coming from someone I respected and consider of high integrity, it also made a great impression on me reading Marc Andreessen’s personal account of a meeting with Obama. What impressed me in Andreessens account is the way Obama listened rather than talked, a characteristic which I felt showed his genuine interest in the problems presented to him. And lastly, he gained great respect in my book for appearing so genuinely as himself on the Daily Show and being able to stand up to the jokes of Jon Stewart in such as relaxed manner.

Lately I’ve been reading up on Obama’s tech policies, and the one thing I note with the greatest clarity is his emphasis on what can be done in America, in order to lift not only America, but also the challenges we face globally.

Seizing the moment : Obama’s speech at Google

Obama spoke last year (November 14th 2007) at Google’s HQ in Mountain View about his technology and innovation program. Watching this video of his speech I found I learned a great deal about Obama – and not just about his views on technology. If you haven’t had a chance to see this before, please join me here :

I took some time out to transcribe Obama’s entire speech below. It’s one of those speeches which apparently is not included in any of the official lists. Most blogs quote his technology policy press release, but I find it illuminating to read the words he actually used speaking at Google, and I learned a great deal about him in the process of transcribing his words. It’s a great speech, and one that resonates greatly with me.

Full transcript of Obama’s speech

When you start to think about it, there is something improbable about this gathering. Afterall it wasn’t much more than a decade ago that Larry and Sergei got together in a dormroom as graduate students with a big idea to organize all of the world’s information into an accessible form. And at the time I was a [novice? Illinois?] state senator, doing my best to help people get a better shot at their dreams.

What we shared is a belief in changing the world from the bottom up, not the top down. That a bunch of.. that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. We shared that, and we also shared a bunch of student loans that still needed to be paid off. (laughter) And you would have found it hard to predict that Larry and Sergei would now be the co-founders of one of the most successful companies in recent history. And that I would be standing on this stage today as a candidate for president of the United States.

But this is where improbable journeys have led. This is where the moment finds us. And I’d like to say a few words about what I believe we have to do together, to seize this moment with a sense of purpose and a sense of urgency.

We know how the first chapters of the Google story have turned out. Afterall, all of you have good jobs. But we also know that the Google story is more than just being about the bottom line. It’s about seeing what we can accomplish when we believe in things that are unseen. When we take the measure of our changing times and we take action to shape them. And that’s why we’re here today. That’s why many of you decided to work here instead of somewhere else.

Technology and innovation have reshaped our economy and our lives at breathtaking speed. America’s been fighting to figure out how to tap this awesome new ressource we have. And Google’s helped to show us the way. But the story is far from over. Google’s story is far from over. The story about how we shape our changing times is far from over. What comes next depends on the choices that we make right now, at this moment, in this election.

We could see the spirit of innovation that started this company be stifled. We could see the internet divided up to the highest bidders. We could see a government that uses technology to shut people out, instead of letting them in. Tax breaks shuffled to special interests, while the next startup, the next Google can’t get a fair shot. Challenges like health care and energy that hold our country back while competition from other nations picks up. That’s one alternative.

Another alternative is for us to unlock a new future of opportunity. Together we could open up the government and invite all citizens in, while connecting all of America to 21st century broadband. We could use technology to help achieve universal health care. To reach for a clean energy future. And to ensure that young Americans can compete and win in the global economy.

If America recommits itself to science and innovation then we can lead the world to a new future of productivity and prosperity.

That’s what we can do if we seize this moment. That’s the choice we face.

As president, I intend to work with you to write the next chapter in the story of American innovation. That’s part of the reason why I’m running for president of the United States.

To seize this moment we have to ensure free and full exchange of information. And that starts with an open internet. (applause) I will take a backseat to noone in my commitment to network neutrality. Because once providers start to privilege some applications or websites over others then the smaller voices get squeezed out and we all lose. The internet is perhaps the most open network in history and we have to keep it that way.

To seize this moment, we have to connect all of America to 21st century infrastructure. As president, I will set a goal of ensuring that every American has broadband access, no matter where you live, no matter how much money you have or don’t have. We will raise the standards for broadband speed. We will connect schools and libraries and hospitals. We will take on the special interests so that we can finally unleash the power of wireless spectrum for our safety, our security and our connectivity.

To seize this moment, we have to use technology to open up our democracy. It’s no coincidence that one of the most secretive administrations in our history has favored special interests and pursued policies that could not stand up to the sunlight. As president, I’m gonna change that. We will put government data online in universally accessible formats. (applause) I’ll let citizens track federal grants, contracts, earmarks and lobbying contracts. I’ll let you participate in government forums, ask questions, in realtime, offer suggestions that will be reviewed before decisions are made. And let you comment on legislation before it is signed. And to ensure that every government agency is meeting 21st century standards, I will appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer to coordinate and make certain that we are always at the forefront of technology and that we are incorporating it into every decision that we make. (applause)

And if you wanna know how I’ll govern, just look at our campaign. We received over 370.000 donations online, half of which have been under 25 dollars. Nearly 300.000 Americans have their own accounts on Barackobama.com. They’ve created thousands of grassroots groups. They’ve offered up over 15.000 policy ideas. Because we believe that real change can only come from the bottom up. And technology empowers people to come together to make that change.

Because at this moment I think we have to do more than get our house in order. The opportunity in front of us is bigger than that. Seizing this opportunity is gonna depend on more than what the government does or even what the technology sector does. It’s gonna depend on how together we harness technology to confront the biggest challenges that America faces.

Just imagine what we could do. If we commit ourselves to electronic medical records, then we can lift up the quality of health care and reduce error at dramatically lower costs. (applause) If we take on special interests and make aggressive investments in clean and renewable energy, like Google’s done with solar here in Mountain View, then we can end our addiction to oil, create millions of jobs, and save the planet in the bargain.

If we make technological literacy a fundamental part of education, then we can give our children the skills they need to compete and ensure the next generation of scientists and engineers as being educated right here in America.

We can do this, but we can’t wait. Because Silicon Valley is not the only corner of innovation in the world. If America doesn’t seize this moment, then we will face only more competition from Dubai and Dublin, from Shanghai and Mumbai. So instead of George Bush’s policy of undermining science, I intend to double federal funding for basic research and make the RND tax credit permanent. (applause) To keep the door open for the next generation of startups, I will enforce tough antitrust laws. And to ensure that America continues to attract the worlds’ best and brightest, we need comprehensive immigration reform, that strengthens permanent residence VISA’s like the H1B program.

We need to make sure that the next success story, the next Google, happens here, in America. The Google story is about what can be achieved when we cultivate new ideas and keep the playing field level for new businesses. But it’s also about not settling for what we’ve already achieved. It’s about constantly raising the barr, so that we’re more competitive, and so that we use technology to reach ever expanding horizons.

You know, the first time I was back here, in 2004, Larry showed me the image that tracks all the internet searches taking place in the world. I wrote about this in my book. I saw the Earth rotating on a flat panel monitor with the different lights for different languages marking all of the traffic on this wondrous network, a network, that didn’t even exist when almost all of us here were born. (laughter) Almost.

But what struck me wasn’t the light on that globe. It was the darkness. Most of Africa, chunks of Asia, even parts of the United States. The disconnected corners of our interconnected world. Where the promise of the 21st century is being eclipsed by peril. You and I must not settle for anything less than an America that replaces that darkness with a new light.

Because the promise and prosperity of a new economy must not be the property of the few.

It must be a force that lifts up our entire country and ultimately lifts up the entire world. (applause) We have the privilege to live in a transformational moment. A moment when an idea can change the world. A moment when technology empowers us to come together as never before, while letting each of us reach for our own individual dreams. A moment when we can finally progress and move beyond the huge challenges that have stood in the way of progress for far too long.

We can not and we must not look back and regret that we settled for anything less. And that’s why I’m asking you to join me in seizing this moment. I’m asking you to join me in changing the world. Thank you very much everybody. Thank you. (drowning in standing ovations)

Interview : Break the fever of fear

Obama’s speech is followed in the video with an insightful, relaxed and entertaining on stage interview hosted by Google CEO Eric Schmidt. In this interview Obama talks very open-heartedly about why he’s running for president in the first place, and why he’s running now. He’s also asked how he will actually end the war in Iraq, if he presumably takes office. As most will know, Obama opposed the war in Iraq. This speech from 2002 against the war in Iraq is well worth another read.

Obama sums up his foreign policy with the French president Sarkozy’s words, to “be more liked”. Meaning, that if the US is more respected and recognized for it’s diplomatic efforts, it will be easier to build up trust which enables problem-solving and diplomatic solutions and harder to create mistrust against Americans. Obama will “break the fever of fear” which has been exploited by the Bush administration to instill fear and distrust :

We’re told to be afraid of terrorists, of immigrants.. and each other … Our values are distorted .. not being certain if simulated drownings are really torture… That’s not who we are, as Americans. Sometimes I’m accused of being this progressive, far-out… – I’m conservative, in the sense that I want us to get back to those values that were essential to building America.

I sincerely hope he succeeds.

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Why We Don’t Really Like Social Networks


I’ve sometimes experienced people who won’t accept invitations to connect with me on social networking sites such as LinkedIn or Facebook. Sometimes because they don’t know me or believe they don’t know me. “Knowing someone” is an extremely relative concept with the advent of the internet, though I can also see the grounds on which LinkedIn would want to hold on to this concept.

In other cases, people are afraid they may get spammed or get tricked into spending lots and lots of precious time on meaningless online jabbering and “click this to see who’s on your page” kind of stuff. Others, like my friend the science fiction writer Palle Juul Holm, simply hates what he calls the “americanized categories” of LinkedIn which doesn’t even allow “retired” or “literature” as categories.

To tell you the truth, I hate this too. I hate and dislike fixed categories, because they shape people’s minds in bad ways. In fact, I hate social networks. Social relations there are rarely true and meaningful relations, and I don’t want to waste my time installing useless applications which waste other people’s time. I hate to waste my time on useless crap. I like quality and I like meaningful conversations.

Yet I am a member of more than a handful social networks, and will add a lot more as we go along in Kaplak. Why? I’ll tell you why in a minute.

I have and have always had great contempt for people, institutions or societies which seek to enslave people. Be it slaves to certain kings or rulers, or slaves to certain ideas or modes of thought. The worst idea is probably the habit of believing that one can do no difference in one’s life, which one grows into, when one is not free. “The slave is not free, as long as he considers himself a slave”, to paraphrase one of my heroes, the German philosopher Max Stirner.

I believe people grow, create and live their lives best as free, empowered individuals, and that the world will be a greater place to be when as many people can be and can do so. I believe people who are free, and free to seek and find information, will be wiser people.

One of my greatest passions is tools and services, which empower individuals to create their own online architectures. Because using and building our own tools (i.e. free software) is what makes us free, knowledgeable and capable of change. With free software, i.e. software which can be freely distributed and tinkered with, we can modify the online as well as the offline digital architectures we use ourselves.

This is why I love wikis, why I love decentralized structures and p2p-based architectures, which empower individual members to exercise their influence, bandwidth, harddrive spaces and every bit and byte of their communicative and hacking capabilities to mold what they use so that it fits their needs.

The antithesis to this, of course is any “system”, which create architectures, that cannot be changed by it’s individual users. Systems which are the fruits of what Richard Stallman (visit Stallman’s personal website here) with disdain and contempt in his voice calls “proprietary software”. Facebook and LinkedIn are prime cases of such enormous systems, which are based on fixed categories and variables, which cannot be modified by users. Within this system, of course, there are lots of things which can be modified, but only after you accept the premises of say Facebook’s view of the world, which is “users”, “friends”, “pages”, “groups”, “walls”, “applications” and so on. One cannot break up and shape the architecture itself.

These systems are clearly bad, IMO, for our freedoms and capabilities of building our own architectures.

Why do I support and encourage the use of these systems then? Why do I invite others to take part in services such as these? One very important reason is that we can’t do anything, unless we’re connected. And as long as any platform gives me the opportunity to reach out and connect with others – most importantly those I want to know and who wants to know me, but don’t know about me – I will use it, as long as it’s free and doesn’t give me headaches. As long as it gives others an opportunity to reach out and communicate back, it’s a tool we may be able to use in our broader scope of things to come. It’s a tool for connecting, so that we may share and shape those much deeper and meaningful conversations – which will form more durable relations, which are beneficial to us in the long term. Which may help us break down the walls and empower more people to create their own architectures.

If we can, for instance, use the Facebook platform to promote Kaplak’s widgets and allow our users to sell products there, we’ll do it with this perspective in mind. We have a focus beyond the categories of “knowing someone” or being someone’s “friend” on social networks, which is crucial to what we do in Kaplak. It is not just about “selling things” and making money, when we try to expand on social networks. We do not dislike money or earning them, but as a company we want to add real value. Our primary capital for doing this is durable connections and ressourceful people, not money or “friends” on Facebook.

If this post resonates with you, we’d like to invite you to join our new Kaplak group on Linkedin, or alternatively, to ‘become a fan’ or group member of our Facebook group. Not just as a number in our friend count, but as someone capable of speaking back, here, there or in other contexts or platforms of your preference and choosing. As always, you’ll find us on Twitter and del.icio.us, among other places :-)

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The freelancer

Thomas Magnussen is a British-Danish actor with a voice talent. His first job was a minor part in Tom Hanks’ tv-series Band of Brothers (2001), and since then his work has been a mix of theatrical plays, voice work and a number of roles in film and television. He has done a few international commercials. On his website, Thomas uses this video to introduce himself :

Thomas was kind enough to send me a quicktime file of the film, which I uploaded to YouTube (whose true merits we discussed briefly here), because I think it is important to show the video here as well. When you expressly put a text, an image or a video (like in this case) into a new context, it makes it stand out in a new way and helps create new meaning. And create meaning is what we want to do, because this creates value for this particular spot on the internet. I’m surprised, with Thomas’ resume, that I couldn’t find him on YouTube or in other places, because this kind of activity helps build traffic for his website, and it doesn’t cost anything.

Kaplak : Can you tell us a little about yourself and your niche business? How did you get involved with your line of work?
Thomas Magnussen (TM) : I am an actor, trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, working freelance in both theatre and films. I have several years of experience in doing various voicework such as: Documentary speaks, cartoon dubbing, voiceovers and commercial speaks. As I am bi-lingual English-Danish I’m equally skilled in both languages, and therefore work in both.

Kaplak : What kind of digital product do you produce (if any)?
TM : The digital products I produce are primarily the above mentioned voice related works, but I would be open to any idea which could involve acting related jobs, such as e-learning products for instance.

Kaplak : What constitute the greatest opportunity for your business on the internet?
TM : The greatest opportunity the internet offers me is that I can reach out to potentiel clients/employers in every part of the world by simply being visible via my website.

Kaplak : What are the greatest challenge?
TM : The greatest challenge is to find out where to focus my attention and how to get people to find out that I exist.

As an actor, Thomas is a hired gun. He is primarily a freelancer. The main portion of his work is done for clients, i.e. other creative producers and companies. Even when hired by a theatre, jobs are per project and run for a limited time. In several respects, this makes him different from the hobby-oriented “just for fun” niche producer and the professional-level producer we’ve met earlier on this blog.

First, he doesn’t usually own the digital end products he helps create. There could be exceptions to this, and surely there’s a lot of convergence happening, where a one day freelancer may be a producer on his own terms the other day (I’ve worked like that myself for years). As a “classic” freelancer though, one doesn’t usually gain rights to the work produced, but more often has to give them up.

Second, Thomas’ primary problem is visibility. But not towards people who buy the end digitial product (still, we keep out all points about convergence for now), but towards his clients, the producers all over the world, who want the product he offers. In other words, to get in touch with the producers who will want to hire him, if they knew he existed.

To sum up, it’s not the visibility for “end customers”, transport of data og payments which are Thomas’ challenges. In this sense, at first glance, he’s not an obvious Kaplak customer. But still he’s a very attractive customer for Kaplak. Why? Because he has a website! And he has something to sell, besides his acting product.

Thomas’ website is right now not much more but a showcase of his previous work, a curriculum vitae and some contact information. But it is also (or could be) an entry point to Thomas’ fan base or network. These people are valuable customers for the products, which Thomas’ acting efforts help produce, and possibly also for other types of related products. Imagine, that Thomas could help sell one of his recent projects, i.e. James Barclay’s next feature film Aurum, via his website. Imagine that the entire cast on this film (most actors have their own webpages) could help sell the film via their websites. Not only would this be great marketing news for the producer, but could also help provide a little extra for each actor.

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