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Koha – A Gift Comes Home

Last night I was fortunate to be invited to Levin for a celebration of the library trust’s launch of its new web site, the first Koha 3.2 site in the world (see comment below, it may be the 2nd to actually go live). It was a lovely event, held in the council chambers, surrounded by art work by the talented Wendy Hodder as well as enthusiastic supporters and sponsors of the Horowhenua Library Trust (HLT), including the mayor, Brendan Duffy.

This was very much a coming home event for free software system, Koha. Ten years ago HLT and the Koha developers ‘gifted’ Koha to the world, releasing the first web based library management system under a GPL licence. The world accepted the gift and has gifted back in spades. Thousands of libraries use Koha and many companies and individuals offer Koha support and contribute code to Koha. HLT calculate they have a million dollars in the ten years they have been running Koha, on software fees and through other savings. At the same time they have been able to provide world class services to the small New Zealand communities nestled between the Tararua Mountains and the Tasman Sea that make up the Horowhenua region.

In a very nice way, many locals don’t realise just what an impact their library has had on the world. For Koha, last night must have been a bit like Frodo and his friends arriving back in the Shire, having defeated the dark lord Sauron, only to face issues such as Bag End being having been dug up*.

A final word should to the small local businesses who give help financial assistance to HLT. Ian Ranson – the plumber, Whispers Café, Paper Plus Levin, Garden of York market gardeners and the regional council…You are providing support to your community and to a global community, and you are receiving thanks and support on return.

Be proud, and thanks Joann.

*For me, being from Wellington, everything is an allegory for Lord of the Rings

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Where are the Libraries of Tomorrow Going to be?

More Updating. Walter McGinnis doing a very nice job (i.e. much better) of keeping up with links to tributes:

Updates. More tributes to PR from people with far more insight than I have:

My first action on hearing about Paul’s death was to check his twitter account. Surely this was simply some social experiment he was conducting, extreme maybe, but probably with a profound point. Sadly, as the morning passes it seems that Paul Reynolds has indeed died.

Unlike many mourning his death today, I did not know Paul very well. We had crossed paths on occasion giving presentations. What always impressed was the depth of his thinking and the amount of work and research he put into forming his views and informing others. This effort seems to me to be a lost art in today’s world of easy find, easy flip on. He backed this up with passion in a time when passion is seen as a character flaw.

Recently I had hoped that we might see more of each other. We were both involved in Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand and I had seen him give yet another thoughtful, inspirational and uncompromising talk to educators at the 2010 Te Papa Ed Talks (sadly, Paul’s is not online).

One of the points he made in this talk was about how libraries were not just places where knowledge was shared, they were quiet spaces. Spaces without clutter and distraction in which it was possible to think and study deeply. He was making this point at a conference which was busy celebrating the impact of technology on education. Paul’s question for the audience was, “Where are the libraries of tomorrow going to be?”. Where will the thinkers and studiers find the quiet spaces they undoubtedly need?

I had chat with him a week or so after that talk. The place was the bridge that connects Wellington Civic Square to the waterfront. It was a beautiful evening but Paul had a cold, was tired and heading back to Auckland after giving his all once again. I stopped him to tell him how much I had enjoyed his talk at Ed Talks and we chatted about Creative Commons, ACTA, travelling between Auckland and Wellington and then said goodbye. It was a start.

I do not know whether Paul believes in an afterlife but I hope if he has found one it contains lots of quiet spaces, with books. As for his legacy, I think most of us have a lot of re-reading and catching up to do, his ideas and observations need time and space.

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Three strikes and you’re out!

A while ago, I asked whether we are seeing a trend to promote shallow layers of “open source” on top of a deep proprietary software stack. Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.

Strike three. [added later: Chem4Word is an open source plug-in for Microsoft Word which adds support for chemistry markup.]

As a lapsed chemist, it saddens me to criticise a project with such a worthy goal. But this software spreads proprietary lock-in, not freedom. Those wishing to use it can only do so by first buying a stack of proprietary software. Those receiving documents created using it may well not be able to open them unless they have the same software and the same plug-in. Those who distribute the software, or documents created using it, are making science less free.

I am left with some questions:

  1. Will those funding the project also be funding a port to a free software alternative, such as OpenOffice; if not, why not?
  2. Is the phrase “open source” being embraced, extended and de-commoditised?
  3. Is it time for the New Zealand Open Source Society to change its name, or does it support initiatives such as this one?

This shows once again what happens when we focus on the software licensing, instead of on the user’s freedom. Or am I missing something? Are the chemists involved in this doing something that I have missed?

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Software Patents: things are livening up

A bouquet goes to the chief executive of the New Zealand Computer Society for his letter to the Minister (pdf).

A brickbat goes to the director of strategy and innovation at Intergen for his intemperate comments about those who took the time to make a submission to the Select Committee.

Once more: there is no “fundamental right” to a statutory monopoly in the form of a patent. A patent is a privilege, not a right. Societies grant patents because, on balance, we judge that the social good exceeds the harm. We generally accept that monopolies are harmful, so the onus is on those wishing to acquire such a monopoly to make their case.

As Eben Moglen has noted of a recent US court decision:

[This] shows the beginning of a broader front in the judicial determination to reign in patenting that has gone too far, turning information that should be free to all into property exclusively held by a few.

And as the Computer Society’s letter reminds us:

we do not see the software patent issue as an Open Source vs Proprietary Software issue

I continue to wait for those in favour of software patents to present a reasoned, evidence-based argument in support of their position. A position which appears to be faith-based is not, in my view, a sound basis for policy. To quote Eben Moglen again, we need compelling reasons before we “can tolerate the widespread creation of statutory monopolies on ideas”.

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Software Patents: the heart of the matter

In a generally clear and thoughtful analysis of the Commerce Select Committee’s report and recommendations on the Patents Bill, Baldwins have identified the key point of the free software community’s view of software patents:

It is not clear why the Committee gave the open source Community submissions such weight.  To argue that software is unpatentable because it builds on existing software seems unusual given nearly every invention builds on what others did before.  As many innovators realise, one object of the patent system is to promote publishing of inventions.   Then others have the opportunity to learn and develop from those inventions and improve our standard of living.

Software development builds on existing software in the same way that novelists, and indeed their readers, draw on past works. Culture always builds on the past. And the past always tries to control the future; software patents are an example of this. As all software developers realise, to understand and implement a software innovation, you need to read the source code. We learn to write large, complex programs by first making small changes to big programs, not by writing a small program, then a bigger program, then a big program.

Many novelists start their writing careers by producing works which are derivative of other writers, before finding their own voices. Much of the advice given to aspiring authors (and software developers) reflects this:

  1. read widely and read a lot
  2. write, then re-write
  3. stop doing things which aren’t reading and writing

Free software developers are applying the scientific method. Releasing software under a free licence means others have the opportunity to learn and develop from it and improve our standard of living, or solve their own private problems. Reading a patent doesn’t help, that’s software alchemy; you need to “show me the code”.

The Select Committee had the difficult task of distilling a large amount of complex, and in some cases highly technical, evidence into about a page in its final report. It would be helpful to what is clearly going to be a continued debate if all the evidence presented was made available online. Free software requires free documentation. This is how we correct our mistakes:

Many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact. — T. H. Huxley

As the digital economy plays an ever-growing part in the total economy, we as New Zealanders need to decide whether we want to build our future on software science or software alchemy. Based on the evidence placed before it, the Select Committee chose science.

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Software patents: it ain’t over until it’s over

An opinion by Ken Moon, posted on 1 April, presents A J Park’s view on the unanimous recommendation from the Commerce Select Committee that “a computer program is not a patentable invention”. He notes that, “This indicates the select committee accepted the submissions made by those who are opposed to granting patents for software inventions [sic]” and goes on to say:

The submitters’ arguments are highly contestable.  They believe that software patents are inconsistent with the open source model.  However, this is only relevant if the model is proven to be best and that all software developers should use it.  There is no such evidence.  Developers who use the proprietary model should be free to do so unless there is proven economic harm.

The problem I have with the idea of software patents is that I have never heard a convincing answer to the question, “What is the problem to which software patents is the solution?” Nor have I heard a convincing rebuttal to the many arguments against them, such as Richard Stallman’s analysis of The Danger of Software Patents.

I do not accept that “software inventions” are comparable to “mechanical or chemical inventions” — rather, they are akin to literary and musical inventions. The idea of software patents makes as much sense as the idea literary and musical patents. Do those who want software patents also want literary and musical patents? At the Select Committee hearings I attended, I saw no evidence presented to support the claim that software is an “invention” — it was simply assumed.

I do not understand how this in any way affects the freedom of those who write proprietary software. As far as I can see, they can continue to do so, continue to offer proprietary licences for sale, and continue to treat their source code as a trade secret. I am not aware of any evidence that excluding software patents will harm developers of proprietary software. Quite the contrary; Bill Gates has stated that, “If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today’s ideas were invented, and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today.” It appears the lesson he drew from this was to take out as many patents as possible, so he could do unto others what he was glad others had not done unto him.

A number of people from the New Zealand free software community took the time to write submissions putting the case against software patents and took the time to appear before the committee. If New Zealand developers of proprietary software chose not to take advantage of this opportunity, one may reasonably conclude that they too see no need for software patents. Patent attorneys may well see compelling benefits from software patents, but like any service provider, they need to make their case to the customer, so the customer can make an informed decision.

It’s easy to be cynical about politicians. The committee, representing all parts of the political spectrum, read the submissions, listened to the arguments presented, asked thoughtful questions, and reached a unanimous conclusion. They decided, as many of us have done, that those in favour of software patents have simply not made their case.

Let us hope that when the bill returns to the House, the legislation passes in its amended form.

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No Software Patents in New Zealand?

The revamped Patents Bill still has to pass more legislative hurdles to get through to law in New Zealand. But it has been through a very important period of review and public consultation. Parliament’s select committees are made up of MPs that represent all parties in the house. After this bill’s first reading it was the job of the Commerce Select Committee to review and consult on the proposed legislation.

They have completed that process and reported back to the house with their conclusions. This report contains several recommendations which, under normal circumstances, should make it into the legislation that is then passed into law.

A pdf version of the report is now available.

Here is how the MPs of all parties introduce their findings:

[the old act] has a low threshold for patentability compared with most other countries. This low threshold can lead to broader patent rights being granted in New Zealand than in other countries, which can disadvantage New Zealand businesses and consumers[...] This can discourage innovation and inhibit growth in productivity and exports.

Finally, some sense around the economic issues of “intellectual property”. But here is the real juice for the free and open source software community:

We recommend amending clause 15 to include computer programs mong inventions that may not be patented. We received many submissions concerning the patentability of of computer
programs. Under the Patents Act 1953 computer programs can be patented in New Zealand [...] Open source, or free, software has grown in popularity since the 1980s. Protecting software by patenting it is inconsistent with the open source model and its proponents oppose it. A number of submitters argue tha there is no “inventive step” in software development, as “new” software inevitably builds on existing software. They felt that computer software should be exluded from patent protection as software patents can stifle innovation and competition, and can be granted for trivial or existing techniques. In general we accept this position.

(My emphasis)

So, there you are. New Zealand MPs of all parties are to be congratulated on recognising, what to many, for many years, has been patently obvious. There are some members of that committee that paid particular attention to the detail of the debate, there were also lots of submissions made be patent lawyers in favour of patents. These MPs weighed up the arguments and came down against software patents. This is ground breaking and visionary. I congratulate our law makers today.

To all who took the time and effort to write submissions and who took the unique step of coming to Wellington and baking up those submissions orally…congratulations. Most of us in this community did so on our own time and covering our own expenses.

We now need to ensure that this recommendation actually makes into the redrafted legislation.

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A Personal Free Software Desktop Experience

By Jemma Batt, February 2010

When I began my research assistant position in November I was issued with a laptop to load with Ubuntu 9.10 using the default desktop environment, GNOME. Like anything new and different, it took a few days to get a feel for this open source desktop especially after having only had experience on Windows based computers since a very young age. After getting used to navigating around I have found it a very simple and user friendly system.

I mostly used the Office applications for my work; OpenOffice Writer for my word processor and OpenOffice Calc for spreadsheets. Both were easy to work with, offering almost all of the same functions as Microsoft Word. Any missing functions that I noticed were trivial things, like not being able to change the format of a single page within a multi page document to landscape [editor's note - this is a training issue, the OpenOffice uses a page style for portrait/landscape switches]. Nothing ever inhibited me from completing a project. One thing I particularly liked about Writer was the Table function; it was something I needed to use a lot and I found it extremely user friendly with lots of formatting buttons and no issues.  I had a quick tinker with OpenOffice Impress, the Presentation application, and again, it appears to meet all user needs.

When I first began using Writer there was no dictionary installed, however this was easily solved by accessing the OpenOffice Extensions website via the tools menu, and downloading the English (New Zealand) dictionary which was among a huge selection of spell checkers including Te Papakupu Maori.

Compatibility with other programs was something I worried about unnecessarily. I use a Windows computer for printing purposes and to open ODF files on that system was as simple as typing a “how to” into Google and downloading a plugin. Another option was saving the documents in .doc format in OpenOffice.

A really fantastic feature is the Ubuntu Software Center where there is access to an abundance of free software available to download. That’s “free as in freedom” and “free as in beer”. I used this to download Transcriber, a transcribing application, and Audacity, a Digital Audio Editor, to transcribe several interviews. Both were extremely helpful, however I had a few problems with Audacity freezing on several occasions, one which led to the loss of a whole interview and several hours work, which I thankfully had a backup of. I was told, though, that Audacity is known for having problems on all operating systems. Another issue with these programs, and the most significant I’ve had in the entire time of using this desktop, was not being able to open the recorded interviews which were WMA files. They opened without a problem in the default Audio/Movie player but not in the other applications. This meant a search for an open source file converter which took a lot more effort than I had anticipated thanks to WMA having copy protection. I couldn’t find an open source converter that both ran on Ubuntu, and converted WMA, so I had to resort to downloading one on a Windows PC and converting the files before transferring them onto my Ubuntu laptop.

The most impressive thing, and something I am not looking forward to returning to once I give this laptop back, is the lack of non responsive programs and required rebooting. I never (apart from with Audacity) had issues with programs freezing or crashing and I never had to restart the computer after downloading updates or new software. This is something that I constantly face with my Windows laptop and is the bane of it’s existence.

One thing I did not have any experience with is Evolution, the email client, only because it was not really necessary for what I was doing.

Overall the experience has been a good one, certainly not challenging, and has been a manageable solution for me as a general end-user. John Rankin says on the NZOSS website that a modern free software desktop will meet the needs of 90% of the people, 90% of the time which, after three months, is something that I definitely agree with.

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Open vs. Open – The Shocking Truth

“One particular debate, or perhaps, a point is confusion, is around the word ‘open’.”

So begins an interesting post on Open Government, Open Standards, Open Data and Open Source by Adobe’s “evangelist for open government solutions”, Bobby Caudill.

Try and ignore the irrational religious connotations around the use of the word “evangelist” and focus on the argument Caudill and many others make. It goes a little like this:

“Open source advocates say their way is the only true way to openness. This is false. Open standards, open data and open government don’t rely on open source at all.  Indeed open government is about culture not technology.”

There are a number of flaws in this argument. The first is the initial strawman, presenting a case that not many in the open source software movement have ever made.

The another flaw is pretending that “openness” like “freedom” is a specific, measurable point. There is no absolute point at which a box can be ticked and “openness” achieved. There is a continuum of openness, just as there is a continuum of freedom.

If a government or organisation wants to be open then the more they can back this up with actions the more likely it is that they will achieve openness. If they consistently chose to embrace openness in their technology, licensing, data, standards and, gasp, software it is more likely that they will be more open than an organisation that simply announces it has achieved openness because data set ‘x’ has been made publicly available in a certain format at a given point in time. The latter case is certainly a bit more open than the government that did not release the data set but it can hardly claim to be far along the spectrum of achieving a wider degree of openness.

What has been shown over and over is culture that drives open source software does indeed lead to higher degrees of openness, whether it applies to the implementation of and adherence to open standards or production of data or running of organisations, such as Albany Senior High School.

My question back to Bobby Caudill is this. With all this talk of openness, why do you continuously try and make “open source” a dirty phrase? With all that talk it is inevitable that someone says the obvious…”open source has and does all this, especially the culture, why are you ignoring it?”

But be careful stating the blimmin obvious, it can have a shockingly unexpected result.

Frisky and Mannish demonstrate

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Open Source Citizenship

After writing about my digital overseas experience, I found this interesting essay on open source citizenship.  To simplify:

  • residents put utility first — it doesn’t matter whether software is free or proprietary, as long as it does the job
  • citizens also consider their rights, responsibilities and the kind of community they want to be part of

Do we want to be residents or citizens?

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