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O'Reilly Open Source convention in San Diego:

Paul Weinstein visited the five day O'Reilly Open Source Conference in San Diego this week and gave his highlights of the interesting news and events

First published: 26th July 2002

O'Reilly Open Source Conference: Day 3

Tim O'Reilly introduced (photo) the first Keynote speaker for this year's Open Source Conference, Lawrence Lessing, as "my favorite keynoter." Lessing, a professor of law at Stanford Law School, is a vigilant defender of freeing content from the growing limitations of copyright law within the United States. He began by confessing that this would be his second to last keynote and therefore wanted to leave a four-part refrain with the audience:

  • Creativity and innovation always builds on the past
  • The past always tries to control the creativity that builds on it
  • Free society tries to protect the future by limiting the control of the past
  • Ours is less and less of a free society

It seems history has shown that creativity and innovation always build on the past. A prefect example of this property of culture, according to Lessing, can be seen in Walt Disney's "Rip, Mix and Burn[ing]" of fairy tale classics in the Twentieth Century. Yet, at the same time the past always tries to control what can be created. Again Lessing sighted that Disney, or in this case the Walt Disney Corporation, has successfully lobbied a number of the 11 total extensions of copyright law, imposing limitations on creative works from 17 years to 95 years. Thus the Walt Disney Corporation has kept others from doing to Mickey Mouse what Disney did to the Brothers Grimm.

Worst, according to Lessing, is that technology has helped in the expansion of control that the reworking of copyright law has started. A perfect example is Adobe's E-Reader which limits the ability to cut-and-paste text, making it difficult for someone to even quote text for a research paper, something that is not only possible with print, but has been legally upheld as a "fair-use."

A silver lining would be that within a free society one could take a stand against these abuses. After all who wants to live with Hollywood's "insane rules being applied to the whole world?" The problem is that applying direct pressure for change within the United States can be difficult. As retiring US Congressman JC Watts described it "If you're explaining you're losing." Lessing then asked, "What have you done? How many of you have given the EFF more than you've given to the other side [for music CDs or movies on DVD?]"

This last refrain of Lessing's points to exactly why members of our free society should care about the limitations of our laws and technology, "never in our history has so few people controlled so much of our culture." What needs to be done is to "Free Culture" and "Create like it's 1790" when copyrights only extended to a narrow number of years and when copyright was understood to be a limitation on businesses a not a limitation on what individuals could do in creating culture.

A perfect stage was now set for the second keynoter of the morning, Richard Stallman who Tim O'Reilly admitted to butting heads with on occasion, but who had a "very creative way to deal with the problems of today." RMS took right to telling everyone, "Unlike some of you, I am not an open source developer. I'm an activist in the free software movement."

In the 1980s RMS was dealing with the death of the free community that he knew in the 70s. What choice did he have while all the operating systems where proprietary? His solution, he started the Free Software Foundation, "This was the only thing I could do," he conceded.

RMS sees "a possibility of freedom" if "you make sure all of your software is free." While the strides with GNU/Linux have been great, the "job isn't done till all the software is free."

But what does RMS mean when he says the software has to be free? To this he listed four conditions that have to be meet:

  • Freedom Zero is the right to be able to run the software any way you want
  • Freedom One is the ability to understand and change the software
  • Freedom Two is the ability to share the software, changes or no, with friends
  • Freedom Three is the ability to help build your community using the software

"Geeks like to think that they can ignore politics, you can leave politics alone, but politics won't leave you alone," RMS noted, echoing Dr. Lessing, "we have to reject" efforts by politicians just as DRM - Digital "Rights" Management. According to RMS, the DRM isn't about rights; it's about theft, theft of our freedoms.

RMS then took the rest of his time to poke fun at the image that some people have about his attitude of being "holier than thou." After dressing himself in an outfit appropriate for a holy figure, RMS pronounced himself "Saint iGNUcius of the Church of Emacs" and provided a prayer to bless one's computer. One should "exorcise evil proprietary operating systems" doing so would put one on the road to sainthood. (photo)

During lunch on Wednesday Tim O'Reilly took time to ask questions of RealNetworks Chairman and CEO Rob Glaser about Real's announcement that they will be providing parts of their code for their next generation media platform Helix to the open source community. Glaser first reviewed the announcement for the audience:

  • Helix is a platform for streaming media
  • Helix Community has been created for work on the components for this new platform
  • The client application source code will be available in 90 days with the encoder and server source code to come out at the end of 2002.
  • Helix Universal Sever, a commercial product from Real, delivers all types of media formats such as Windows Media, mp3, even Ogg Vorbis.

When asked "Why Now" Glaser replied that within RealNetworks there has always been strong support internally for open source, but Real need to make sure that open sourcing part of their code-base worked such that Real could still provide a value-added business to their base technology. Moreover embracing the open source community helps make sure open standards such as RTP and RTSP are implemented properly.

Glaser continued by discussing the dual-licensing approach of using a GPL-inspired license called the RealNetworks Public Source License along with a Java-style license called the RealNetworks Community Source License saying, "We studied a lot not just how to connect with the community, but also how to build a licensing model that would allow our commercial partners to build and maintain compatible applications."

O'Reilly Open Source Conference: Day 4

Thursday started with two keynotes about the role of open source technology in the world of Bioinformics. Ewan Birney, of the European Bioinformatics Institute, started by giving a crash course on how Bioinfomatics is a fusion of Biology, data gathering, and computer science and computer technology.

As an example Birney noted that one of EBI's projects is to provide the Human Genome data for all to see. In doing so EBI uses a combination of open source technologies such as mySQL, Linux, Perl, Python, Apache and mod_perl. While, the code developed to run the site is available under a BSD-style license, the greater result is that the 3 Gigabytes of information that details how to make a Human is open to anyone, without restriction.

Jim Kent, a research scientist at University of California, Santa Cruz continued by noting "I don't think you can have science without open source." Kent observed that the practices of science and those of the open source community are virtually the same, "People can't do [reproduce meaningful results] unless they can see your source" and peer review helps generate better science as well as better software.

O'Reilly Open Source Conference: Day 5

Friday, no doubt, was the day that made the conference for many attendees as they saw how open source can assist in the production of movies such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, heard Bruce Sterling rant about the computer industry and watched Bruce Pernes keep himself from being fined half a million dollars for breaking the DMCA - Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Milton Ngan from Weta Digital, the special effects house created by Peter Jackson, helped open the final day by discussing how open source tools are used to produce the Lord of the Rings. First, however, he entertained the audience by providing a preview of the next Lord of the Rings release, The Two Towers

In creating effects for a movie the first step for Weta is to scanning in the whole file for digitalization, "a process that takes two weeks," according to Ngan. The production system consists of 125 SGI machines running Irix, 200 Linux machines and 25 NT boxes. Rendering an effect completely takes around 20 hours and is then played back one a handful of Macintosh for review. Once finished it takes another 2 weeks to transfer back to film.

The open source tools Weta uses included Perl and mySQL for data storage and manipulation. Ngan also noted "Apache and PHP are used for running [Weta's] Intranet." Using open source tools in such a rugged environment "pushes the boundaries, which helps solidify the tools."

Weta Digital indeed tries to give back to the open source community when possible, but Ngan noted that there is little sharing of tools within the Computer Graphics Imagery industry, "everyone has created their own solution." Moreover, while Weta does own the tools it created and New Line Cinema owns the images created by those tools, the focus and dedication of resources is in the post-production work for Lord of the Rings. If Weta Digital is not selected to for any other production work it will simply cease to exist, thus limiting the resources available to prepare their code for release to the community.

Bruce Sterling started his talk on "A Contrarian Position on Open Source" by conceding that he was the token novelist, a non-programmer, talking to programmers about how to program, something akin to "a non-miner going down a mine and asking, 'Why don't you take some time to plant something down here and brighten the place up?"

Sterling took an opposing view to the "Cathedral and the Bazaar" metaphor of relating the open source methodology or "bazaar" to commercial "closed-source cathedral." "It's not really about a bazaar. Open Source is about hanging out with the cool guys - very tribal and very fraternal." Which means the price for using open source software such as Linux is "having to spend time with Linux Geeks." In fact if open source technology is analogous to anything it's "just like in a refugee camp, one puts in a long amount of time for nothing."

But then again, what is the alternative? Foreshadowing Bruce Pernes' talk Sterling observed that a computer running Microsoft Windows is more akin to an airport. There are "men with automatic weapons, surveillance cameras all over the place. You can't sob as you kiss your mother goodbye at the airport, because it's all on videotape. Then a security check, assumes you've swallowed dynamite and will kill any one you see. All the while attendants ask you snidely 'Where do you want to go today? As if they're doing you some sort of favor."

The real problem is that "the computer industry wants to be hot and sexy." 'Information wants to be Free' or 'Information is the Economy' are slogans heard all the time. Yet this isn't what computers are about, freeing information or making money. "Computers are about relationships," they are an enabling technology not an end unto themselves.

Days before, Bruce Perens, who currently works as a Senior Strategist and Evangelist of Linux and open source software with Hewlett-Packard, was scheduled to talk; Perens started making the news with his plan to violate the DMCA by describing how to work around DVD player controls. Since the DMCA prohibits making information available on how to circumvent copyright controls, HP asked Perens to take a pass at opening himself and HP to litigation. "I care more about this than getting myself fired," Perens stated, "but the fact is that getting myself fired today would hurt Hewlett-Packard's Linux program."

With the disclaimer that the talk he was about to present was his own personal opinion and not that of HP, Perens vocalized some of the problems he sees in the computer industry. His desire to discuss how to work around DVD controls such as the 'Zone Coding' constraint systems that limit what geographical region a DVD can be viewed in, was designed to highlight how the DMCA, "has no exception for fair use" and removes the personal choice of allowing someone to "purchase a DVD in England on vacation and watch it at home in America."

Perens continued by stating his concerns with Microsoft's Palladium initiative which "is built on the assumption that the computer user can't be trusted, thus your own computer must prevent you from doing harm" and could be the "end of open computing." After all how can one run a system akin to Linux when a "chip on the motherboard mediates your access to information" and "all digital content is encrypted for mediation by the chip." People may not even be able to print out information from a web page for use away from one's computer without paying a fee. The "unpleasant sociopolitical implications are that this Supply-Side Thinking that dominates politics today devalues the customer, citizen, individual."

Perens then picked up the common theme from those before him. "What Can You Do?" his presentation slide asked. Since "policy effects all of us and since we as individuals don't get the choice of voting with our wallets," we need to make our voice heard the 'old fashion way'. "Become pen pals with your politician - use paper not email, vote" and probably most importantly, "talk about this to the people around you."

This feature brought to you by: Paul Weinstein