Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Why does free copying work for Linux and not for music and movies and books?

You are probably not a Linux user.  I am.  Up until quite recently I was a fervent user of the Ubuntu flavor (or "distribution") of Linux.  If you go to the linked page, you'll find that you can get an entire computer operating system, for free, and use it as much as you like.

How can this be, you ask?  What is the catch?

Well the catch is--there is no catch.  It really is free.  They even give you the source code so you can compile it yourself, and thus you can (at least in theory) change anything you don't like about it exactly the way you wish.

Doesn't that make you feel free?

Ubuntu itself is made from many disparate components which are also free software.  They just kind of bundle them all together in a certain, nice, user friendly way.  It is very convenient.

As a geek, this sort of thing is important to me because I quite frequently find myself needing to set up new machines, and installing operating systems.  I don't want to have to jack with license keys and such, or have to call someone for permission to install the basic computer operating system.  Also, I want a fully functional system out of the box--which neither Windows nor Mac provides.  Linux distributions come with tons and tons of free, open source software right off the bat.  They even generally have "package managers" and "software repositories" built in, which make it easy to install more free software with a couple of mouse clicks.  (These are much like "app stores", except everything is free).

I will not bore you with details about this time.

What I will bore you with is my recent experience changing my desktop operating system to Mint Linux.  Sorry, that's Linux Mint, as they seem determined to call it.  Just as Ubuntu is derivative of other software, Linux Mint is a derivative of Ubuntu.

Basically, I upgraded my Ubuntu system and Ubuntu has changed the basic interface in a way that, frankly, no longer functions correctly (or as designed).  I am a serious computer user, so I haven't got time for these shenanigans. So after getting frustrated I switched to Linux Mint, and now everything works fine.

I noticed when I was installing Linux Mint that even the installation screens were quite obviously copied from the base Ubuntu.  They just copied it and changed it to suit them.  And they left out the changes that I (and many others) didn't like.

And this is how it's supposed to work.

You will not be reading any news articles about how Ubuntu is suing Linux Mint for copyright infringement.  Hell, if they tried it the Linux community would probably literally gather outside their corporate headquarters with torches and pitchforks.  But they wouldn't try it because the software is licensed in such a way as to actually encourage sharing.  It is, in fact, legally enforceable.

See, "licensing" of software is actually a fairly recent innovation.  The natural and original state of software was more or less public domain.  Felllow technicians shared their code because it was useful and, frankly, felt good.  But once companies like Microsoft showed just how much money could be made by selling licenses, that became the dominant mode of software distribution.

But the geek culture of making and sharing code never went away, and in fact the new licensing culture spawned a reaction in that community called the GPL, or Gnu Public License.  There are several variants, but the long and short of it is that it actually enforces openness.  If you download some GPL licensed code, you can do what you like with it, but if you make changes and distribute them you have to include your new source code so that others can benefit.

So what this did is spawn a giant ecosystem of software--you really have no idea how extensive it is if you don't use it regularly--which has been continually refined and improved over the years.  This includes the Linux kernel (the core software of a computer system), as well as lots of software that runs on it and other platforms, such as Firefox, Chrome, OpenOffice, Android, etc.  The GPL license is "viral" in that it "infects" other software with openness.

Mind you, no one is making you use that software.  You are not bound by the terms, basically, unless you alter and distribute GPL software, which you got for free in the first place.

So why can't this work for movies and music and books?  Fucked if I know.  I don't see any reason it shouldn't.

Would it require a massive change in thinking?  Yes, of course--that's why I'm here, trying to encourage that.

The point is, the existence of these many highly polished, professional level computer operating systems and the vast attendant library of software accompanying them--puts paid to any notion that you have to have a money and distribution cartel involved to create worthwhile works.

It's just nonsense.  Lies.

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