Older blog entries for louie (starting at number 686)

Forking and Standards: Why The Right to Fork Can Be Pro-Social

[I originally sent a version of this to the W3C's Patents and Standards Interest Group, where a fellow member asked me to post it more publicly. Since then, others have also blogged in related veins.]

Blue Plastic Fork, by David Benbennick, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blue_plastic_fork.jpg used under CC-BY-SA 3.0.
Blue Plastic Fork, by David Benbennick, used under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

It is often said that open source and open standards are different, because in open source, a diversity of forks is accepted/encouraged, while “forked” standards are confusing/inefficient since they don’t provide “stable reference points” for the people who have to implement the spec.

Here is the nutshell version of a critical way in which open source and open standards are in fact similar, and why licensing that allows forking therefore matters.

Open source and open standards are similar because both are generally created by communities of collaborators who must trust each other across organizational boundaries. This is relevant to the right to fork, because the “right to fork” is an important mechanism to help those communities trust each other. This is surprising – the right to fork is often viewed as an anti-social right, which allows someone to stomp their feet and walk away. However, it is also pro-social: because it makes it impossible for any one person or organization to become a single point of failure. This is particularly important where the community is in large part a volunteer one, and where a single point of failure is widely perceived to have actually failed in the past.

Not coincidentally, “largely volunteer” and “failed single point of failure” describes the HTML working group (HTML WG) pretty closely. W3C was a single point of failure for HTML, and most HTML WG participants believe W3C’s failures stalled the development of HTML from 1999 to 2006. For some of the history, see David Baron’s recent post; for a more detailed
history by the author of HTML5, you can look in the spec itself.

Because of this history, the HTML WG participants voted for permissive licenses for their specification. They voted for permissive licenses, even though many of them have the most to gain from “stable reference points”, since they are often the ones who (when not writing the standards) are the one paid to implement the standards!

An alternate way to think about this is to think of the forkable license as a commitment mechanism for W3C: by committing to open licensing for the specification, W3C is saying to the HTML WG community “we will be good stewards – because we know otherwise you’ll leave”. (Alternate commitment mechanisms are of course a possibility, and I believe some have been discussed – but they’d need careful institutional design, and would all result in some variety of instabililty.)

So, yes: standards should be stable. But the options for HTML may not be “stable specification” or “unstable specification”. The options, based on the community’s vote and discussions, may well be “unstable specification” or “no (W3C) specification at all”, because many of the key engineers involved don’t appear to trust W3C much further than they can throw it. The forkable license is a popular potential mechanism to reduce that trust gap and allow everyone to move forward, knowing that their investments are not squandered should the W3C screw up again in the future.

Syndicated 2013-06-05 16:39:15 from Luis Villa » Blog

San Francisco News

When I wrote about cutting back on national news, and trying to get more serious about local news in SF, a few people asked that I share my sources of SF news. Here’s a first cut, in alphabetical order:

  • Bay Nature – Bay-area nature-related news and events
  • Burrito Justice – hard to summarize, but city history, neighborhood-related humor, and an obsession with the Sutro Tower
  • CitiReport – city and state politics; unfortunately not full-feed
  • Curbed SF – great mix of real estate, history, and other related topics; more city politics/less house-by-house coverage than SocketSite
  • Fog City Journal – cranky, but very insider-y, city politics coverage
  • LiveSOMA – coverage of my neighborhood, though sadly on life support
  • SF Public Press – think of them as an on-paper NPR. I donate, and you should too!
  • SFist – quirky-ish local news
  • SocketSite – real estate news
  • Spots Unknown – little bits of  SF stories
  • StreetsBlog SF – great coverage of transit and biking in the city; must-read if you’re a biker in the city
  • Bay Citizen – had great non-profit coverage of the city; not clear what happens with that now that they’ve merged with CIR
  • The Snitch – valuable mostly for its pointers to lots of other city news sources
  • ThinkWalks – actual real-world walks in the city
  • Whilst in SF – because sometimes you have to laugh
  • SPUR Blog – urban development policy! what could be more fun!

I’m very open to more suggestions, particularly more “mainstream” suggestions. The traditional media frankly often pisses me off, but if I want to understand San Francisco, I should probably also take in some of the same media stream as most of my neighbors.

Syndicated 2013-05-30 06:10:37 from Luis Villa » Blog

At the Wikimedia Foundation (for, um, three months now)

Since it was founded 12 years ago this week, Wikipedia has become an indispensable part of the world’s information infrastructure. It’s a kind of public utility: You turn on the faucet and water comes out; you do an Internet search and Wikipedia answers your question. People don’t think much about who creates it, but you should. We do it for you, with love.

Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner, from http://blog.wikimedia.org/2013/01/14/wikipedia-the-peoples-encyclopedia/

As Sue says, the people who create Wikipedia are terrific. I’m lucky enough to say that I’ve just wrapped up my first three months as their lawyer – as Deputy General Counsel at the Wikimedia Foundation. Consider this the personal announcement I should have made three months ago :)

Wikimania 2012 Group Photograph, by Helpameout, under CC-BY-SA 3.0, available from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wikimania_2012_Group_Photograph-0001.jpg
Wikimania 2012 Group Photograph, by Helpameout, under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Greenberg Traurig was terrific for me: Heather has a wealth of knowledge and experience about how to do deals (both open source and otherwise), and through her, I did a lot of interesting work for interesting clients. Giving up that diversity and experience was the hardest part of leaving private practice.

Based on the evidence of the first three months, though, I made a great choice – I’ve replaced diversity of clients with a vast diversity of work; replaced one experienced, thoughtful boss with one of equal skill but different background (so I’m learning new things); and replaced the resources (and distance) of a vast firm with a small but tight and energized team. All of these have been wins. And of course working on behalf of this movement is a great privilege, and (so far) a pleasure. (With no offense to GT, pleasure is rarely part of the package at a large firm.)

The new scope of the work is perhaps the biggest change. Where I previously focused primarily on technology licensing, I’m now an “internet lawyer” in the broadest sense of the word: I, my (great) team, and our various strong outside counsel work on topics from employment contracts, to privacy policies, to headline-grabbing speech issues, to patent/trademark/copyright questions – it is all over the place. This is both challenging, and great fun – I couldn’t ask for a better place to be at this point in my life. (And of course, being always on the side of the community is great too – though I did more of that at Greenberg than many people would assume.)

I don’t expect that this move will have a negative impact on my other work in the broader open source community. If anything, not focusing on licensing all day at work has given me more energy to work on OSI-related things when I get home, and I have more flexibility to travel and speak with and for various communities too. (I’m having great fun being on the mailing lists of literally every known open source license revision community, for example. :)

If you’d like to join us (as we work to get the next 1/2 billion users a month), there are a lot of opportunities open right  now, including one working for me on my team, and some doing interesting work at the overlap between community, tech, and product management. Come on over – you won’t regret it :)

Syndicated 2013-05-20 14:00:49 from Luis Villa » Blog

Information diet weekend

As a slight sequel to my “feed reading is an open web problem” post, so far this weekend I have taken the following information diet steps:

RSS feeds: 610→339 (and counting).

Based on Google’s stats, I’d probably read about a million feed items in Reader. This is just too much. The complaints about attention span in this piece and in The Information Diet1 rang very true. Reader is a huge part of that problem for me. (Close friends will also note that I’ve been mostly off gchat and twitter during the work day since I started the new job, and that’s been great.) So I’ve spent time, and will spend more time soon, pruning this list.

National news feeds: lots→~0; weekly paper news magazines: 0→2; local news feeds: small #? large #?

My friend Ed put in my head a long time ago that national news is not very useful. It riles the passions, but otherwise isn’t helpful: you’re not making the world a better place as a result of knowing more, and you’re not making yourself happier either.2  So you’re better off reading much less national political news, and much less frequently: hence the two new on-paper subscriptions to weekly news magazines.

Besides allowing you to get off the computer(!), the time saved can also be used to focus on things that either make your life better (e.g., happier) or that give you actionable information to resolve problems. To tackle both of those needs, I’d like to curate a set of local news feeds. I’ll be blogging more about this later (including what I’m already reading), but suggestions are welcome. I suspect that will make me much happier (or at least less angry), and present opportunities to actually do things, in ways that the national news obviously never can.

Moved from reader→feedly.

The impending shutdown of Reader was obviously the catalyst for all this change; feedly seems not perfect but pretty solid. I continue to keep an eye on newsblur (still a variety of issues) and feedbin.me (no mature Android client yet), since feedly is still (1) closed source and (2) has no visible business model – leaving it susceptible to the same Reader shutdown problem.

"Two young children picket for the ILGWU carrying placards including 'I Need a Healthy Diet!' outside the Kolodney and Myers Employment Office" by the Kheel Center at Cornell University, used under CC-BY 2.0.
“Two young children picket for the ILGWU carrying placards including ‘I Need a Healthy Diet!’ outside the Kolodney and Myers Employment Office” by the Kheel Center at Cornell University, used under CC-BY 2.0.

Steps still to come:

Separate the necessary from the entertaining

Joe pointed out to me that all news sources aren’t equal. There are feeds you must read in a timely manner (e.g., for me right now, changes in work-critical Wikipedia talk pages), and feeds that can be sampled instead. The traditional solution to this is folders or categories within the same app. But we’re starting to see apps that are optimized for the not-mission-critical entertainment feed stream (Joe specifically recommended Currents). I’d like to play with those apps, and use one of them to further prune my “serious feeds” list.  Recommendations happily accepted.

Improve publication

I do want to participate, in some small way, in the news stream, by creating a stream of outbound articles and commentary on them. I never used Reader’s features for this, because of the walled garden aspect. Many of our tools now make it easy to share out to places like Twitter and Facebook, but that means I’m contributing to the problem for my friends, not helping solve it. I’d like my outbound info to be less McDonalds and more Chez Panisse :) The tools for that aren’t quite there, but this morning I stumbled across readlists, which looks like it is about 90% something I’ve been looking for forever. I’ll keep keeping an eye out, so again: good suggestions for outbound curation tools happily accepted.

What else?

I hate the weasely “ask your audience” blog post ending as much as anyone, but here, I have a genuine curiosity: what else are friends are doing for their info diets? I want to eventually get towards the “digital sabbath” but I’m not there yet; other tips/suggestions?

  1. capsule book review: great diagnosis of the problem, pretty poor recommendations for solutions
  2. It’s pretty much a myth that reading the news makes you a better voter: research shows even supposedly high-information voters have already decided well before they read any news, and if for some reason you’re genuinely undecided, you’re better off reading something like ballotpedia than a streaming bunch of horse-race coverage.

Syndicated 2013-05-06 04:31:56 from Luis Villa » Blog

Why feed reading is an open web problem, and what browsers could do about it

I’ve long privately thought that Firefox should treat feed reading as a first-class citizen of the open web, and integrate feed subscribing and reading more deeply into the browser (rather than the lame, useless live bookmarks.) The impending demise of Reader has finally forced me to spit out my thoughts on the issue. They’re less polished than I like when I blog these days, but here you go – may they inspire someone to resuscitate this important part of the open web.

What? Why is this an open web problem?

When I mentioned this on twitter, an ex-mozillian asked me why I think this is the browser’s responsibility, and particularly Mozilla’s. In other words – why is RSS an open web problem? why is it different from, say, email? It’s a fair question, with two main parts.

First, despite what some perceive as the “failure” of RSS, there is obviously  a demand by readers to consume web content as an automatically updated stream, rather than as traditional pages.1 Google Reader users are extreme examples of this, but Facebook users are examples too: they’re no longer just following friends, but companies, celebrities, etc. In other words, once people have identified a news source they are interested in, we know many of them like doing something to “follow” that source, and get updated in some sort of stream of updates. And we know they’re doing this en masse! They’re just not doing it in RSS – they’re doing it in Twitter and Facebook. The fact that people like the reading model pioneered by RSS – of following a company/news source, rather than repeatedly visiting their web site – suggests to me that the widely perceived failure of RSS is not really a failure of RSS, but rather a failure of the user experience of discovering and subscribing to RSS.

Of course, lots of things are broadly felt desires, and aren’t integrated into browsers – take email for example. So why are feeds different? Why should browsers treat RSS as a first-class web citizen in a way they don’t treat other things? I think that the difference is that if closed platforms (not just web sites, but platforms) begins to the only (or even best) way to experience “reading streams of web content”, that is a problem for the web. If my browser doesn’t tightly integrate email, the open web doesn’t suffer. If my browser doesn’t tightly integrate feed discovery and subscription, well, we get exactly what is happening: a mass migration away from consuming (and publishing!) news through the open web, and instead it being channeled into closed, integrated publishing and subscribing stacks like FB and Twitter that give users a good subscribing and reading experience.

To put it another way: Tantek’s definition of the open web (if I may grotesquely simplify it) is a web where publishing content, implementing software that consumes that content, and accessing the content is all open/decentralized. RSS2 is the only existing way to do stream-based reading that meets these requirements. So if you believe (as I do) that reading content delivered in a stream is a central part of the modern web experience, then defending RSS is an important part of defending the open web.

So that’s, roughly, my why. Here’s a bunch of random thoughts on what the how might look like:

Discovery

When you go to CNN on Facebook, “like” – in plain english, with a nice icon – is right up there, front and center. RSS? Not so much. You have to know what the orange icon means (good luck with that!) and find it (either in the website or, back in the day, in the browser toolbar). No wonder no one uses it, when there is no good way to figure out what it means. Again, the failure is not the idea of feeds- the failure is in the way it was presented to users. A browser could do this the brute-force way (is there an RSS feed? do a notice bar to subscribe) but that would probably get irritating fast. It would be better to be smart about it. Have I visited nytimes.com five times today? Or five days in a row? Then give me a notice bar: “hey, we’ve noticed you visit this site an awful lot. Would you like to get updates from it automatically?” (As a bonus, implementing this makes your browser the browser that encourages efficiency. ;)

Subscription

Once you’ve figured out you can subscribe, then what? As it currently stands, someone tells you to click on the orange icon, and you do, and you’re presented with the NASCAR problem, made worse because once you click, you have to create an account. Again, more fail; again, not a problem inherent in RSS, but a problem caused by the browser’s failure to provide an opinionated, useful default.

This is not an easy problem to solve, obviously. My hunch is that the right thing to do is provide a minimum viable product for light web users – possibly by supplementing the current “here are your favorite sites” links with a clean, light reader focused on only the current top headlines. Even without a syncing service behind it, that would still be helpful for those users, and would also encourage publishers to continue treating their feeds as first-class publishing formats (an important goal!).

Obviously solving the NASCAR problem is still hard (as is building a more serious built-in app), but perhaps the rise of browser “app stores” and web intents/web activities might ease it this time around.

Other aspects

There are other aspects to this – reading, social, and provision of reading as a service. I’m not going to get into them here, because, well, I’ve got a day job, and this post is a month late as-is ;) And because the point is primarily (1) improving the RSS experience in the browser needs to be done and (2) some minimum-viable products would go a long way towards making that happen. Less-than-MVPs can be for another day :)

  1. By “RSS” and “feeds” in this post, I really mean the subscribing+reading experience; whether the underlying tech is RSS, Atom, Activity Streams, or whatever is really an implementation detail, as long as anyone can publish to, and read from them, in distributed fashion.
  2. again, in the very broad sense of the word, including more modern open specifications that do basically the same thing

Syndicated 2013-04-22 05:43:39 from Luis Villa » Blog

One year on OSI’s board (aka one year in OSI’s licensing)

Since it has been roughly one year since Mozilla nominated me to sit on the OSI board, I thought I’d recap what I’ve done over the course of the year. It hasn’t been a perfect year by any stretch, but I’m pretty happy with what we’ve done and I think we’re pointed in the right direction. Because my primary public responsibility on the board has been chairing the license committee, this can also sort of double as a review of the last year in license-discuss/license-review (though there is lots of stuff done by other members of the community that doesn’t show up here yet).

Outside of licensing, my work has consisted mostly of cheerleading the hard work of others on the board (like Deb’s hard work on our upcoming DC meeting and the work of many people on our membership initiative) – I haven’t listed each instance of that here.

"Open Source" Water
Wikimedia Deutschland offices in Berlin, during the tour at the Chapters Meeting 2011“, by Mike Peel, under CC-BY-SA 2.5. (Mind you, CC is not actually OSI-certified ;)

Some things that got done:

  • Drafted and published a beta Code of Conduct for license-discuss/license-review. This was drafted with the intent that it will eventually be a CoC for all of OSI, but we’re still formally beta-testing it in the license committee community.
  • Revised the opensource.org/licenses landing page to make it more useful to visitors who are not familiar with open source. Also poked and prodded others to do various improvements to the FAQ, which now has categories and a few improved questions.
  • Revised OSI’s history page. The main changes were to update it to reflect the past  5-6 years, but also to make it more readable and more positive.
  • Oversaw a number of license submissions. I can’t take much credit for these- the community does most of the heavy lifting. But the group submitted in the past year include AROS, MOSL, “No Nonsense“, and CeCILL. The new EUPL is in the pipeline as well.
  • Engaged Greenberg Traurig as outside counsel to OSI, and organized and hosted a board face-to-face meeting at Greenberg’s San Francisco office space.
  • Helped keep lines of communication open (and hopefully improving!) with SPDX and OKFN.

Some projects are important, but incomplete:

Some projects never really got off  the ground:

  • I wanted to get GNOME to join OSI as an affiliate. This, very indirectly, spurred the history page revision mentioned above, but otherwise never really got anywhere.
  • I wanted to have OSI reach out to the authors of the CPOL and push them to improve it or adopt an existing license. That never happened.
  • I wanted to figure out how to encourage github to require a license for new projects, but got no traction.

I hope that this sounds like a pretty good year- it isn’t perfect but it felt like a good start to me, giving us some things we can build on for future years.

That said, it shouldn’t be up to just me – if you think this kind of thing sounds useful  for the broader open source community, you can help :)

  • Join license-discuss, or, if you’re more sensitive to mail traffic, but still want to help with the committee’s most important work, join license-review, which focuses on approving/rejecting proposed new licenses.
  • Become a member! Easier than joining license-discuss  ;) and provides both fiscal and moral support to the organization.

Syndicated 2013-03-17 20:03:29 from Luis Villa » Blog

Pushing back against licensing and the permission culture

tl;dr: the open license ecosystem assumes that sharing can’t (or even shouldn’t) happen without explicit permission in the form of licenses. What if “post open source” is an implicit critique of that assumption – saying, in essence, “I reject the permission culture”? If so, license authors might want to consider creating options that enable people to express that opinion.

A few months back, James Governor said:

younger devs today are about POSS – Post open source software. fuck the license and governance, just commit to github.

— James Governor (@monkchips) September 17, 2012

While the actual extent of “POSS” is debatable, there is definitely an increase in the amount of unlicensed code out there. This post suggests 20+% of the most-watched github projects are unlicensed. The pushback against licensing isn’t specific to software, either – at least some sharing musicians are deliberately spurning Creative Commons (via Lucas) and Nina Paley has been obliquely making the same point about the licensing of her art as well.

A few months back, I pointed out that the lack of licensing led to confusion and so was great for lawyers. That post was accurate, but slightly glib. Here, I want to grapple more seriously with the rejection of licensing, and provoke the licensing community to think about what that means.

A dab of history and context

In the US, prior to the 1976 Copyright Act, you had to take affirmative steps to get a protectable copyright. In other words, you could publish something and expect others to be able to legally reuse it, without slapping a license on it first.

Since the 1976 Act, you get copyright simply by creating the work in question. That means every blog post and every github commit is copyrighted. This restrictive default, combined with the weakness of fair use, leads to the “permission culture” – the pernicious assumption that you must always ask permission before doing anything with anyone’s work, because nothing is ever simply shared or legally usable. (This assumption is incorrect, but the cost of acting that way can be high if you make a mistake.)

Permission, by Nina Paley.
Permission, by Nina Paley.

“POSS” might be more than just bad hygiene

It is easy to assume that the pushback against licenses (“post-open source”) is because licensing is confusing/time-consuming and people are lazy/busy. While I’m sure these are the primary reasons, I think that, for some people, the pushback against licenses often reflects a belief that “no copyright should mean no permission needed”. In other words, those people choose not to use a license because, on some level, they reject the permission culture and want to go back to the pre-1976 defaults. In this case, publishing without a license is in some way a political statement  – “not every use should need permission”.1

Fixing(?) the politics of our licenses

If some “no license” sharing is a quiet rejection of the permission culture, the lawyer’s solution (make everyone use a license, for their own good!) starts to look bad. This is because once an author has used a standard license, their immediate interests are protected – but the political content of not choosing a license is lost. Or to put it another way: if license authors get their wish, and everyone uses a license for all content, then, to the casual observer, it looks like everyone accepts the permission culture. This could make it harder to change that culture – to change the defaults – in the long run.

So how might we preserve the content of the political speech against the permission culture, while also allowing for use in that same, actually-existing permission culture? Or to put it more concisely:

What would a “license” that actively rejects the permission culture look like?

A couple of off-the-wall options:

  • Permissive+political preamble license: The WTFPL license (“Do WTF you want“) has been floating around for ages, and using it makes the point that (1) you want people to use your code and (2) you’re irritated that they even have to ask. Adding a brief “I hate that I have to do this” preamble to a permissive license like CC-0 might serve a similar purpose, while providing more legal certainty than WTFPL. (And of course such a preamble could also be used with a strong copyleft, like copyleft-next.)
  • Fair Use supplement: Fair use is the traditional safety valve for copyright, but it is hard to know if a particular use is “fair.” So a “license” could be written that, instead of formally licensing under specific terms, instead aims to provide more certainty about fair use. Some ways this could be done would include broadly defining the fair use categories, explicitly accepting transformative use as a factor in the fair use analysis, or asking courts to interpret ambiguity in favor of the recipient instead of the author. It is also possible to imagine this as a supplement to the existing fair use clauses in modern licenses (CC-BY 3.0 Sec. 2, GPL v3 Sec. 2, MPL 2 Sec 2.6), laying out a strong vision of fair use to help guide and protect anyone relying on those clauses.
  • “What People Actually Think Copyright Is” license: most Americans2 think that personal use of copyrighted materials is legal under modern copyright law. So a license that focused on personal use might work better than the more nebulous “non-commercial”. As a bonus, since commercial interests will clearly be unable to use the content, getting it “right for lawyers” may be less of a concern.

Careful readers will note that the last two options are unlikely to be OSI-open or FSF-free. For the purposes of this exercise, that’s OK- OSI, FSF, and CC’s iron-clad assumption that licensing is good is what I’d like to provoke people to think about here.3

Conclusion, and provocation

I don’t offer these license ideas as a comprehensive survey of what an anti-permission-culture license might look like, or even a good survey. Instead, take them as a provocation: are we – particularly authors and evaluators of open licenses – part of the problem of the permission culture? Are we actually responding to the people who use our licenses, if one of their desires is to push back against the need to license? Can we be more creative about expressing distaste for the permission culture, without gumming up the works of sharing too much? I think that, if we think critically, we can, and perhaps we should.

  1. Another motive, that I won’t go into here but which also deserves serious discussion for license authors, is simply that the values encapsulated in our licenses are taken for granted by younger developers who have always had a plentiful, healthy free-as-in-beer code commons. Both the permissive and copyleft communities would do well to argue the case for their licenses (not just their overall philosophies) better than they currently do.
  2. per Jessica Littman, Digital Copyright, p. 117
  3. If it wasn’t already obvious, this post is obviously not made with my OSI hat on – OSI continues to firmly endorse the Open Source Definition.

Syndicated 2013-01-28 03:00:20 from Luis Villa » Blog

So, iPhone friends: Anyone using Simple? Like it?…

So, iPhone friends: Anyone using Simple? Like it? Useful? Worth signing up for (now that they have Android)?

Syndicated 2013-01-15 18:08:51 from Luis Villa » Blog

Important, excellent long read from @matthewstolle…

Important, excellent long read from @matthewstoller on @aaronsw ‘s broader approach to politics. Read the whole thing. nakedcapitalism.com/2013/01/aaron-…

Syndicated 2013-01-14 15:07:21 from Luis Villa » Blog

Apologies for any spamming

Apologies to any planets/feeds I’m spamming with old tweet-junk right now; I’m trying to archive some tweets into WP and that may lead to some noise temporarily!

Syndicated 2013-01-14 03:45:19 from Luis Villa » Blog

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