Opensource and freedom of movement

I’ve been fascinated by the stuff that Jon Lech Johansen has been up to for quite a while now, he first came to my notice sometime in 2000, soon after he started his reverse-engineer every lock-in campaign; take a look at his blog, So Sue Me, if you’re interested. In fact, if you’re really interested, you should see his Wikipedia entry (which I’ve linked to above) and use that as a date filter into his blog archives.

In a recent Fortune article headlined Unlocking The iPod, DVD Jon (as he is often referred to) is quoted as saying:

“I was fed up with not being able to play a movie the way I wanted to play it”. [He wanted to use a PC running Linux.]

His frustration led to his working with a few people to develop DeCSS. When you take a look at the Wikipedia entry for DeCSS, you find the following:

The licensing restrictions on CSS make it impossible to create an open source implementation through official channels, and closed source drivers are unavailable for some operating systems, so some users need DeCSS to watch DVDs at all.
We’ve all felt some, if not all, of his frustrations. Poorly implemented DRM can create content jails and denude and blight the open spaces where many of us want to live. As with any jail, there have been many attempts to break out. What’s curious about Jon’s latest attempt with the iPod is that he’s breaking in, not out.

There’s something about it that really grabs me. It’s a sort-of hide-in-plain-sight Purloined Letter response to the problem.

I think there is something for all of us to learn from developments like these:

  • People are generally very frustrated at not being able to listen to, watch or otherwise interact with music and film and video. We may not be able to see it, but that’s because we’re dinosaurs. Generation M can see it. Unlike us, they will do something about their frustrations. There will be many DVD Jons out there.
  • Even where solutions exist, or can be made to exist, we have a lot of licence issues to deal with. The generation I belong to probably put most energy into solving the wrong problems, often creating ill-starred tax wheezes and get-rich-quick schemes. Generation M isn’t into the same stuff as we were into, and they will work around current licence issues. There will be many DeCSSs out there.
  • Generation M’s ingenuity isn’t to be trifled with. Our generation may spend time building our walled gardens and using terms like “content” and “IPR” and whatever else we come up with. They’re not going to break out with “our” stuff. They’re going to break in with “theirs”. What Jon did to the iPod was a bit like creating a master key at a hotel in order to solve the different room keys problem. Master keys are used to break in, not out. There will be many master keys out there.

Opensource has always been about free as in freedom, not free as in gratis. Generation M’s values are different from ours, their facility with modern technology is considerably greater, their ingenuity in solving problems comes from quite a different perspective.

People like Jon will devote an awful lot of energy into removing what they see as unfair obstacles. Too often, the obstacles are really about creating artificial scarcities, about protecting some perverse lock-in.

There are many people like Jon out there. Many more than people not-like-Jon, interested in building walls. And soon, with the continued growth in usage of social software, they will have some serious muscle in terms of critical mass.
Think about it before you try and build the wrong walls. Sand castles don’t do particularly well against tidal waves.

5 thoughts on “Opensource and freedom of movement”

  1. I’d like to add one more aspect to the discussion on Opensource software: Open Standards. Emerging standards are both, key success factor for the Opensource community and thread at the same time. Why?

    Let’s look at the main reasons why we still develop lots of new software even after some 20 or 30 years with computers:

    1. New products, new technologies or new cultural developments like extended communications require new software.
    2. Especially in enterprises we belief that new applications create higher degrees of efficiency.
    3. And in some cases we simply need to replace stuff that reached its End of Life.

    None of these developments happen in isolation, but all of them are highly integrated. And if there exists a well accepted standard for this integration then Opensource has a role to play, because “the market” is big enough. But if there are propietary integrations only then we will always find vendor-based software only. This is why open standards are a must for Opensource. But where lays the thread?

    Well, emerging stadards can be adopted by software vendors as well and hence simply the integration. You get to a situation where the highly specialised software components of different vendors work together more or less in a plug and play mode, whereas at the moment we spend most of our time and efforts to integrate the various applications and every vendor tries to defend (or grow) his own claim. This makes us as users less dependent on a particular vendor and we can move away from its products more easily. We are no longer locked-in.

    As a conclusion all of us should continue and increase our efforts in contributing to new standards as their maturity will increase our flexibility and empower us to really make decisions.

    All my best,


  2. The freedom trying to be gained I think is a freedom of thought and a freedom to apply it.
    The Lock-ins do not make any sense. It´s like trying to make something impossible by just saying that it shouldn´t be even when people *know* it´s not impossible. And it surely (imho) is not done by a whole generation as yours and is also not the desire of a whole generation like mine or those younger than me in general. It´s a kind of mindset, not specifically a cultural thing but a matter of values maybe based on experience and expectations.
    It´s where laws are not perceived as being helpful to protect ones rights but to limit them.
    As freedom of speech was paradoxically being fought for by people like Larry Flint.
    In the music industry this has been clearly visible as an army of lawyers trying to bust a new peer-to-peer infrastructure and getting their hands on kiddies with their calculation of loss profits that has not changed since the software pirate copy discussion being held in the 80s, 90s, 2000s (2010s?) just because of industries incompetence or slowliness in adapting to new channels and ways *their customers* want to have access to the products.
    The way is and has been to embrace change, no walls have ever had duration (e.g. German wall or nowadays vendor lock-ins).

  3. Let’s be fair to the people of pre-Generation M generations. Other people have copynorms, too, and in general they seem to be closer to pre-DMCA US copyright law than to the anticircumvention doctrine.

    The only DMCA case to go to a jury was Elcomsoft, and that got basically jury nullified.

  4. Let me try and reply to as many as I can. Clarence, thanks for the link to Pig. I had actually read it (via your blog!) before your comment. I liked it, particularly the emphasis placed on the unintended consequences of DRM. We have to stop this belief that one side or the other is pure evil, it does not help us reach useful conclusions. I will be covering movements like the Pig book in a later post. But I liked it enough to want to order one, which I will do in a couple of days.

    Peter, there is no question that standards have a key role to play. We have had standards for years, but they have been vendor-dominated. We have had other ad-hoc standards for years as well, but they have been dominant-player dominated. What we need is open market standards, stuff that is best done via an opensource community.

    I think Don Marti has commented on aspects of this before. We need standards for substitutability and not interoperability. I will be expanding on this in a post next week.

    Luis, Don, I agree that good work has been done by generations prior to Generation M. Maybe what I should have said is that the tolerance for walled gardens is far lower with Generation M than any prior generation, and as a result there is probably a tipping point coming. And that tipping point will come in ways we can’t visualise easily, given the different perspectives applied.

Let me know what you think

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